Failing the Test

Anger has been increasing lately toward the way standardized testing has taken over the educational process.  Both parents and teachers are aware of the amount of school time devoted to the preparation for and taking of tests.  Worse than that, is the way in which, what teachers teach and what children learn is focused on what will be in the tests.  Schools, teachers, children and indirectly parents are all judged by test results, so the stakes and anxiety are high. 

Historically, education has been used as a means of solving or addressing various social and economic problems that are of wide systemic origin.  Education seems so important a determinant of individual well-being in American society that currently it is  the focus of concerns about inequality.  Our education system is based on groups organized by age and attainment level.  Evaluation outcomes are used to assess levels of achievement that determine advancement to the next level.  Evaluation outcomes determine children’s higher and lower places in the educational hierarchy, thereby affecting their eventual placement in the socio-economic order.

This system is one in which an individual’s performance is comparatively evaluated against that of his age-mates in a way that affects his future opportunities for success in life.  And increasingly, the basis of that evaluation has been the standardized test.  Such  tests are used to determine children’s ability and achievement levels.  Also, differences in test results between and within groups of children have been attributed to poor teachers and have also led to the closing of “failing schools.”   

Now there seems to be recognition growing among parents and educators that children are more than a test score, and education should be more than memorizing information in order to pass tests.  The new schools chancellor of New York City has rejected school ratings and closings based on test data, and has been quoted as saying, “I know a good quality school when I’m in the building.”  Some parents have even had their children opt out of standardized testing altogether.

A new book by education journalist Anya Kamenetz, has arrived just in time to shed light on this issue.  “The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be”, was written to directly address parents who are concerned and stressed about testing.  A parent herself, her hope is that by understanding where these tests came from and how they are made, families will have the tools they need to address them in a constructive way.

“The Test” offers a history of testing including the differences in the way intelligence has been defined, the invention of the multiple-choice test as a way of limiting teachers’ subjective judgments of students’ work, and also shows the roots in the science of testing of the racism of the early I.Q. movement.  Kamenetz discusses the history and politics of testing and explores what a parent, teacher, or concerned citizen can do.  She offers advice for families who want to opt out of some tests, as well as those who want to do better on tests.

Kamenetz writes that “students, teachers and schools are being held accountable for the outcome of tests that don’t cover the most important material that they need to succeed”, such as creativity and self-motivation.  But they fail in other ways as well.  Test outcomes do not reflect what makes a good teacher.  Neither do they reflect the range of abilities and qualities children may have, or that test taking in itself reflects certain skills that are not the most important ones to measure. 

Tests fail as a tool in solving inequality of outcome in education and thereby as a means of using education as the solution to inequality in life.  More significantly, however, the focus on testing has diverted attention from the many causes of inequality that are at work before children even enter school.  Outcome on tests reinforce what many things have created while once again making education the culprit.

Tests fail as the solution to the problems in education or to inequality of outcome.