Graduating from Standardized Tests


Written by Will Wlizlo

Standardized tests are an oft-vilified, cancerous outgrowth on the sickly flesh of 2001’s No Child Left Behind education reform legislation. By shifting the focus of secondary education to preparing students for high-stakes exams, students are incentivized to memorize factoids, formulae, and figures, rather than how to think creatively, form a rational opinion (or sentence), or continue learning outside of a school environment. It as if the Department of Education took on the pedagogic philosophy of Mr. Gradgrind—a boarding school teacher in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times—who is an unwavering advocate of “truth” and empiricism. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts,” Gradgrind pontificates in Hard Times’ opening chapter, “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Don’t get me wrong, getting the facts right is important . . . and you’d better hope your teachers sow the Facts in our current system, or you won’t place very well or SAT or ACT exam. Good luck getting into college without a passing score.

And, for that matter, good luck taking a standardized exam that isn’t bankrolled, lobbied-for, manufactured, delivered, and scored by Pearson Education, an international textbook manufacturer with chokehold on American public schools. “To capitalize on this new world order,” we reported in our Jan-Feb 2012 issue, “testing companies are hiring high-powered lobbyists to influence the government’s educational agenda.” Let me spell this out very clearly: The privatization that these lobbyists are pushing changes the institutional goal of public education from knowledge, equality, or progress to money.

Also, had you heard that standardized tests don’t work very well in the first place?

Even if the interests of standardized testing are entrenched, a few good ideas might help chip away at their rote, zombifying intellectual oppression. For the sake of black humor, here are a few of those ideas bouncing around—presented in the form of a multiple-choice question:

What is an effective way to circumvent the standardized testing teaching paradigm?

a. Judge students’ aptitude with portfolios instead of test scores – Liz Dwyer, the education editor of Good, proposes a technique that some of the country’s best educators use to judge their students’ progress: an end-of-term portfolio. “[I]s there a misalignment,” Dwyer asks, “between the work they can actually do and what the test questions ask?” Narrowing down a quarter or semester’s worth of academic inquiry into one’s best work, Dwyer argues, will “showcase the pieces they believe reflect the depth and breadth of their capacity” and “is more empowering for students than a single number.” Portfolios are an apt assessment for a modern education, she concludes, because they display “creativity, critical thinking, and project-based learning . . . something no test score can quite do.”

b. Foster a “test-optional” university culture – One controversial idea, put forth most extensively by Martha Allman in Joseph A. Soares in SAT Wars, encourages universities to conduct more one-on-one interviews and try to eliminate admissions based on test scores (an inherently discriminatory method, according to the book’s authors). As noted in a review of the book for The Chronicle of Higher Education, no matter the benefits, switching from the status quo comes with its share of growing pains. “We could not have anticipated the dramatic increase in workload,” Allman is quoted as writing, “the labor-intensiveness of the process, the challenge of attempting to interview the entire applicant pool, the technical challenges of written online interview options, nor the volume of comment from our constituencies.”

c. Subvert the traditional university system entirely – “Almost nine out of ten American high school seniors say they want to go to college,” writes Anya Kamentz, the author of DIY U featured in our Sept-Oct 2011 issue, who also notes that “UNESCO concluded that there’s no foreseeable way that enough traditional universities could be physically built in the next two decades to match the demand.” Kamentz puts forth a number of solutions that largely side-step the current system, including open-source coursework, game-based educational software, and hyper-accelerated programs. In other words, breaking down the classroom walls. And if there are no walls, standardized tests can’t keep us hostage.

d. A combination of a, b, and c.

e. None of the above.

What’s the answer? Hopefully we won’t need to ask Pearson Education.

This post was originally published by the Utne Reader.


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Photo from Thinkstock


Jan Mach
Jan Mach6 years ago

That is that! I was teaching math for 17 years on two universities and kept fighting against standardized tests, unsuccessfully of course...

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S6 years ago

This may be one of the most accurate articles on the U.S. education system I've seen. Add to it the "Nordstrom model" whereby college students think they are buying their grades and diplomas instead of earning them, and you have an almost complete picture. The phrase "critical thinking" is bandied about by institutions of higher learning dedicated to teaching (mostly non-research ones) with little meaning and no conviction. Until we learn that education is not a business except for in the U.S. for the past decade or so, we will never truly compete in the world market and will continue to rely on the influx international students who clearly understand better than us that education is a privilege not a commodity.

Jacobo V.
jacobo Van6 years ago

Wonderful contritution. The question for educators is what to share within the learning situation and how best to lump the methodology into a pile of texts and spoonfeed or shovel down the accepted process. While ideas expressed herein may not be that earth shaking, great benefits can be reaped if well designed for the many individual situations. Look down the path- what do we see as useful to learners of all ages today with technologies; real access; downstream applications of modules that can be quantified and evaluated from time to time if that is important.The FUTURE is HERE ---Where are we? God bless

Michele G.
Past Member 6 years ago

Probably a good thing. After all, guessing the right answers has little to do with intelligence.

Lynn C.
Lynn C6 years ago

It's about time.

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Almost nine out of ten American high school seniors say they want to go to college..

This is so unrealistic and stupid. Most should be in vocational or technical ed. Look at EU model- it works better.

Ernest R.
Ernest R6 years ago

@ Stanley B--- True, our “innovative talents” are slipping but we have come a long way, It is now possible to focus on an individual’s movements from space satellites. Many people are “connected” 24/7 by technological devices. Robots have replaced many jobs that once required human nworkers. Drones enable an individual in a comfortable Midwest apartment to kill someone halfway around the world by pressing a button. All transatlantic telephone calls pass through government surveillance. There is now talk of a project to insert devices into a person’s flesh that would enable corporate masters to monitor or dispose of a troublemaker by pressing a button. Rest easy. If we pick up the pace, we can again get ahead of the competition.

William Y.
William Y6 years ago

@ Hartson D. I fully agree. One other problem with standardized tests, is the lack of critical thinking. I could score in the 90th percentile on standardized tests, yet know very little about the subject. How may students today could answer the following, without the use of a calculator:

Train A leaves the station at 6:25 AM, travelling at 55 MPH, Train B leaves the station at 7:05 AM travelling at 66 MPH at what time does Train B catch up with Train A?

note(the answer is 11:05AM)

Chad A.
Chad Anderson6 years ago

We have a lot of teachers who are good at what they do, are well-educated, well-motivated, and underpaid for their qualifications and the job they do. Can't we let them take charge and do what is right for the students according to the best research? Why do we keep snatching away their ability to do the jobs they were trained for?

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers6 years ago

A pity education is no longer in the hands of teachers.