The Myth of Standardized Testing

The debate over NCLB usually swirls around its core strategy, standard testing protocols applied nationwide to every school regardless of population or resources. A reader responded to my post on Jonathan Kozol’s hunger strike by asking the usual question:

“How else can educators assess kids and evaluate students’ results if not through standardized testing?”

The question itself betrays how little Americans know about or will acknowledge the reality of how you build a successful learning environment. So, for this questioner and all the others asking the same question, here’s the answer:

Individually, of course. That’s why IEP’s (Individual Education Plans) were developed 25 years ago. “Standardized testing” is a false solution to a false problem. As another reader wrote:

I have been very aware of another casualty of this lop-sided program: The recognition of developmental stages in children. (It’s one of the reasons we have a juvenile court system, I think..) Anyway, teachers can no longer take into account THE FACT that kids are simply developing at different rates in different areas until adulthood. We all know kids who test poorly, but who are truly brilliant, well, at least smart by every other standard. Some test well in the early years while they simply do as they’re told, but test poorly when the teen years bring on a frisky attitude. Others don’t test well when they’re young, but focus on responsibility suddenly and are able to play the game more easily as they mature. Others will test well all through school and others simply don’t test well and never will. So, except for the group which tests well all through school, the rest are losers by these standards and their teachers should all be fired, I guess.

Look, the real challenge facing American education is the way we pay for it and our traditional frugality toward tax-paid public schools. In a nutshell, studies in this country done over the last 50 years and real-life experience in Europe for a century have proven conclusively that there are two fundamental elements common to a successful learning environment: small class size and adequate resources (up-to-date, well-written and researched books, enough modern equipment to ensure each student equal access, and so on). Take either of those away, and the education experience suffers severely. It doesn’t matter then how well-trained the teachers are, how committed the parents are, or how well organized the administration is.

In all but the richest school districts, at least one of those 2 key elements is NOT present. In many middle class and virtually all poor communities, they’re both missing, and we consistently refuse to recognize the actual problem.

I’ll give you a real-life example from around here.

In a suburb of Worcester, Mass, basically a commuter community, middle class with pockets of lower middle class but very few poor people, there was a span of nearly a decade in the 80’s when the number of students in the district dropped precipitately to less than half what it had been the decade before. Faced with this golden opportunity, the school district did NOT lower class sizes and increase its educational effectiveness. It actually CLOSED whole sections of the elementary and high school buildings so it could squeeze students into crowded classrooms and cut its budget by FIRING teachers.

The tax base had not changed. The explanation for the decrease in the student population turned out to be younger marrieds moving in where both partners were working in well-paying, demanding jobs and were putting off having kids until some time in the indefinite future (they were known as DINKs in those days – Double Income, No Kids).

The school district never even tried to convince voters to maintain its appropriation. The district superintendent went to town meetings with the drastically cut budget in hand and bragged about his pre-emptive frugality. The result was that despite a lower student population, average class sizes actually went UP – from 30-35 to over 40 per classroom (15-20 is widely considered maximum for peak educational efficiency, and the smaller the better).

We flat don’t even know how to think about education in this country, not public education anyway. Private schools know how, and keeping class sizes small is one reason they’re so expensive – a prime selling point is the individual attention they can offer each student.

We don’t have to go to the extremes they do to provide better learning environments, but we do have to start recognizing what it is that makes good learning environments and aiming toward them instead of away from them. At the moment we’re insisting on conditions that worsen that learning environment and then complaining that the system doesn’t work very well.

Standardized testing will NEVER improve overall performance because it can’t. It has nothing whatever to do with the real problem, which is that big classes and diminished resources actively prevent proper evaluations of individual kids’ developmental stage and learning process. You can’t intervene when you don’t have time to breathe, let alone time to sit down with every kid and figure out where they’re at.

As for charter schools, which almost everyone goes to next as a potential solution, I’m not going to get into it in detail now, but suffice to say for the moment that their record is…mixed. Some work quite well, others don’t work at all, and the explanation of the difference is often directly tied to – guess what? – class size and availability of resources.

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