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The Case Against Standardized Testing

Posted: 2007-12-12

Peter's article was named "best submission" in the Minnesota English Journal. It delivers on its title. Site space limitations cut off the notes at the end. They can be accessed using the hot link above.

More than ever, K-12 public education in the United States is

beholden to, and synonymous with, standardized testing. From

teacher merit pay plans linked to test scores,1 to school ‘report

cards’ based on exam numbers under No Child Left Behind,2 to

high-stakes tests determining who walks and who waits,3 policy

makers display an abiding faith in the importance, meaning and

authority of standardized tests.

But, is this faith justified? Is it borne out by research

and academic studies? Corroborated by cognitive theory? Substantiated

by best pedagogical practice? Supported by neuroscience?

Confirmed by international comparisons? Does it create

motivated lifetime learners? And, does it stand the ultimate

test—successfully preparing students for active participation as

citizens and workers in today’s complex, multi-faceted society?

This paper examines these issues in detail, particularly

from the perspective of English instructors, whose sacred domain,

building literacy and critical analysis, demands that such

questions be answered fully and fairly before handing over our

prerogatives, and our curriculum, to those seeking radical change

in how we teach.

It must be said at the outset: standardized testing has

muscled its way onto the educational stage in very short order.

In little more than a decade, the frequency and number of standardized tests has doubled and redoubled in response to public

concern about the quality of high school graduates, and thus, the

effectiveness of public schools. In 2005, 11 million exams were

added in elementary and middle schools; another 11 million

tests for high school science are expected to bring the national

total to near 50 million by 2008, amid signs that the quality,

reliability and validity of exams are eroding.4 (Fairtest puts the

total of all tests—including I.Q., screening and readiness at 100

million; that does not include the ACT or SAT college entrance

exams.5) The rapidity of standardized testing’s ascent means that

few teachers are well-versed in its language, terms or accepted

uses as most teachers’ educational programs did not include such


Ignorance, however, is not a defense; not in legal venues,

nor should it be in education circles. It is my thesis that teachers’

collective ignorance around standardized testing must change—

and change quickly—if we are to preserve our autonomy and

professional status as educators. The entire gestalt of the “accountability”

movement holds that teachers are not to be trusted

or believed when it comes to student learning. Even grades,

acquired over the length of a semester are presumed suspect:

subjective, inadequate measures which do not allow direct comparison

across the domain in a cohort.7

For many outside critics of education, only a standard

test can reveal the “truth” about what transpires in classrooms,

and, thus, successful teaching is reduced to a single, narrow

measure on a multiple choice instrument. Ultimately, such a

system makes teaching the provision of defi ned information inputs—

synonymous to a functionary responsible for conducting

transactions on behalf of some distant monolith. And when the

numbers rolling off the computer print-out appear unsatisfactory

to those in authority? They will have their justification to take

public education private8, where due process, labor agreements

and unions are not barriers to the prerogatives of management.

If that dystopic future alarms you as much as it does me,

then I urge that you learn more about standardized testing (start

by reading this article) and commit to sharing it with students,

parents and the larger community. At this point in education history,

teachers are the last best hope for preserving not only the

autonomy of local schools, but the very meaning and essence of

American democracy.9

To be blunt: as of this writing, I am not impressed by the

collective response by those whose very job it is to know better.

Shame on us for allowing the train wreck of standardization to

get this far down the track without raising a substantial ruckus,

as in: Wrong way! That approaching light is not a tunnel’s end

but the spear tip of a massive social and educational disaster!

Defining Terms

We need to understand the language of standardized testing

before confronting and critiquing its nature and assumptions.

What is a standardized test? An examination made up of

uniform items which can be replicated across an entire domain

of students, typically by asking short multiple choice questions

which can be easily and cheaply scored by machine.

Validity. Does the exam accurately measure the kinds

of skills and aptitudes it purports to? In other words, if we are

trying to measure vocabulary skills, is that what we end up effectively

measuring, or are we actually tracking something else,

like reading skills or the level of advanced course work?

Reliability. Would the exam, if given again, yield analogous

results from the same cohort? In other words, is the exam

measuring a narrow band of knowledge that has been prepped

for and will soon evaporate, or does a subsequent test yield similar


Transparency. Is the examination open to public scrutiny,

debate and monitoring as to quality and accuracy? Or, does it

remain a proprietary instrument of the corporation that created it

and thus is unavailable?

Norm-referenced exams. Exams specifi cally designed to

spread students out across a normal shaped curve. These instruments

are field-tested to prove that they effectively identify high

and low achieving students. In other words, psychometricians

(test makers) select questions knowing how many students, on

average, will get each answer correct.

Criterion-referenced exams. Exams pegged to a specifi c

domain of knowledge or skill. There is no attempt to arrange

questions to produce a normal curve, only to meet the “criteria”

of those designing the test. As a result, in a given cohort, any

number of students could pass or fail depending on the match

between what they know and can do and what is on the exam.

High stakes exams. Tests which decide a final outcome

for students, yea or nay, in terms of passing a course, advancing

to the next grade level or even graduating.10

High-Stakes Testing: The Poster Child of Failure

I am focusing here mainly on “high-stakes” exams since

they are the most pernicious, least accurate and least defensible

of standardized tests. (There are good uses for standardized

tests: in the form of short, frequent measures that assist teachers

in making “formative” decisions about pedagogy.11 But, that

isn’t what is transpiring in K-12 education today.) The rationale

for high-stakes exams is that by upping the ante and letting students

know there will be serious consequences for failure, it will

provoke a better effort, more scholarship and greater attention

to the subject matter. Teachers, too, are thought stimulated by

potential excessive “failures” and, thus, focus their efforts more

effectively on what will be tested.

Yet, giving a “norm-referenced” exam and counting it

for high-stakes is simply an exercise of shooting fish in a barrel,

since the test has been designed precisely because it identifies a

declining level of achievement across a cohort.12 Before the test

is even given, a good psychometrician knows how many students

will and will not pass. Why exactly, would a state administer

a norm-referenced “high stakes” exam, well aware of the

pre-determined fail rate? A question that has fueled speculation

that privatization ideologues want to use public school “failure”

to wrest control of schools from the government.

So, the only defensible exam used for a

high-stakes purpose would have to be “criterion referenced”,13 meaning that as

many students who know and understand the material could, in

theory, successfully pass. Quality criterion-referenced exams

are tied to state standards. However, to believe that every state

has successfully meshed its standards with its exams or that every

school and teacher teaches to state standards in similarly enlightened

and effective ways is not credible. Further, to believe

that one entity, a state board for example, can adequately, fairly

and effectively delineate all the important elements of a subject

like history or mathematics, then encapsulate those perfectly on

one multiple choice exam, is similarly without credence.

Thus, in terms of validity, the best that can be said of

high-stakes exams is that they measure effectiveness of instruction

toward pre-selected material (again, selected by whom?)

on one particular exam. And, in terms of reliability, since most

schools and teachers focus relentlessly on the material just before

the exam is given, it is likely that, a year later, if tested

again, many students would not be as successful. This is why

most thoughtful educators decry the “narrow” focus of testing:

it measures a small domain of select material; one that, when

prepped for, regularly distorts the depth, complexity and steadfastness

of student ability.

But, putting all this aside, let’s return to the central

premise: student effort will increase when there is “more” riding

on a test’s outcome. Astoundingly, there is no research data

showing that such “high-stakes” environments actually work to

improve effort, achievement or scholarship. None.14 Nor have

long-standing college-entrance exams, like the SAT and ACT,

shown any significant change in student achievement over the

last decade.15 In fact, in 2006, they experienced their biggest decline

in 31 years.16 Nor do international comparison exams like

TIMMS17 or national comparative tests like the NAEP18 show

much improvement amongst the body of American students. In

other words, if the claim is that high stakes exams are somehow

improving “student achievement”, it is not showing up in numbers

across class cohorts.

Moreover, a well known sociological principle, Campbell’s Law19 applies directly to “high stakes” exams. Campbell’s

Law, states: “The greater the social consequence riding on an

examination, the more likely it is that the exam will be manipulated

or corrupted to outflank the social pressures surrounding

it.” Campbell’s Law has proven true for centuries, starting with

ancient Chinese civil service exams based on Confucianism. It

has certainly proven to be true with high-stakes testing as David

Berliner documents assiduously in his book on the standardized

testing craze, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing

Corrupts America’s Schools
.20 Campbell’s Law, by itself, makes

clear that high-stakes exams—far from producing “certainty” of

educational excellence—are a set-up for schools to forego real

learning in favor of the only thing the system truly values: producing

an acceptable numerical appearance of learning.

So, despite all the rhetoric surrounding the need for “accountability”

in public schools, the one operational strategy designed

to demonstrate accountability has itself escaped accountability—

at least in terms of having any kind of a research base to

justify its widely accepted use. High stakes exams typically feature

low validity, low reliability and a high likelihood of corruption.

Further, when you factor in that these high-stakes exams,

which have so much riding on them, are not generally available

to the public or subject to the safeguards or oversight that you

would expect from such a consequential event, it should set off

alarms across the country.

Think about this: if a school or a teacher announced to

the student body that there was going to be one test to determine

who graduates, and that what was on that test, its scoring and

methodology could not be revealed—in fact, anyone found to

have revealed specific material on the test could be tried for felony

theft—does anyone think that such a policy would survive

the next school board meeting? Of course not.

And don’t imagine there have not been errors in administering

and scoring these exams—huge errors that have cost

students diplomas, access to scholarships and even admission

to college.21 Such flaws turn up in the local press every year

across the country. But, how are errors even discovered? So far,

only through the relentless pursuit of the truth by parents and a

willingness to initiate court action. But, for poor families, when

handed a score on official school stationary, with a young child

standing nearby looking ashamed, what are the odds they will

spend considerable time and money to contest it over the course

of the next year?

Let me say this again because it is terribly important:

There are no large-scale, peer-reviewed academic studies that

prove, or even suggest, that a high-stakes, standardized testing

educational program improves learning, skill-development or

achievement for students.
And, in fact, when you think about

some of the best students and schools in this country—I am talking

about the 10% of students in private schools—they do not,

as a rule, employ high-stakes testing. And why not? Because

they have a clear educational mission22 in most cases, and understand

that high-stakes standardized tests do not fundamentally

move students closer to learning goals.

The academic motto of the Blake School in Minneapolis

is: Challenging the mind; engaging the heart. And from their

program description: One of Blake’s core values is love of learning.

Every day, in every classroom our students embrace this

value by actively engaging in the learning process.
23 Here is

the Mission Statement of St. Paul Academy and Summit School

in Saint Paul: In pursuit of excellence in teaching and learning,

St. Paul Academy and Summit School educates a diverse and

motivated group of young people for leadership and service, inspires

in them an enduring love of learning, and helps them lead

productive, ethical and joyful lives.

If private schools are the gold standard in American education

and they do not utilize high stakes exams, why then is it

being foisted on public schools?

Why High-Stakes Exams?

Principally because we, as a society, unlike most private

schools, have not decided what the goals of education should

be. As a result, the aims of learning are easily diverted, misused

and hijacked to fit the latest campaign slogan, administrative fiat

or position-paper. There is no clearer example than the 1983

report, A Nation At Risk,24 put forward by business interests,

supported by the Reagan Administration and swallowed whole

by an uncritical media, portraying America’s schools as being

so disastrous that they were ruining America’s competitiveness.

(Funny that the decade of the 1990s turned out to be one of

America’s most successful, at least economically, in its history.)

All this served the purpose of undermining confidence in the

public system, softening the ground for dramatic change, and

lock-stepping education policy with business interests—pushing

us inexorably toward an over-reliance on standardized tests.25

The same thing has now happened under the more sanguine

title, No Child Left Behind, which sets as a condition of

aid for Federal Title I funding tests in reading and math for

grades 3 through 8. While these exams are not high stakes for

students, NCLB provides an ever increasing level of punishment

for schools who do not move rapidly up to 100% proficiency

by 2012—a level of student achievement that has never been

attained in any school, district or country around the world.26

(And, in fact, given that some states are using norm-referenced

instruments, a level of achievement that is already known to be

impossible before any tests are given!) In a sense, what the

onset of NCLB means is that virtually every standardized test

around the country is now high stakes, for schools if not for kids.

What’s more, there are some in Congress who want to extend

the annual testing into high school and use the results to rate

individual teachers.27

It is disheartening that there is not a stronger public

understanding about what is important in education so that it

doesn’t become a political football to be tossed and kicked by

self-serving politicians. Do we really want an education system

driven by the latest political slogan? With education policy

housed in fi fty different state capitols around the country,

the notion of consensus in terms of learning goals is inherently

problematic. In fact, for most of our history, and, ironically, as

recently as the Reagan Administration, local school-board control and individual states as incubators of innovative educational

reforms were viewed as major assets in America’s educational


As a child of two life-long educators, a teacher of 20

years and an author who has studied these issues, I feel compelled

to confront the unchallenged assumption that the current

hyper-testing regime is a sound approach for developing the human

capital that is today’s younger generation. In fact, I am

prepared to argue that not only is the entirety of the standardized

testing regime ineffective in its aims of improving education,

but that it is, in fact, the very reason drop-out rates are

accelerating,28 the achievement gap continues to widen29 and so

much of America’s educational program is dull and uninspired.30

High stakes, standardized exams have been billed as a panacea

for our educational ills. I declare this a sham and an appallingly

bad educational strategy which guarantees poor results, reduced

motivation and legions of graduates without the skills necessary

to live a decent and fulfilling life.

The Dirty Dozen:

How High-Stakes Tests Fail Our Kids

Below, I identify twelve principal harms that fl ow from

the high-stakes, measurable accountability movement in U.S.

education policy. Each contributes its share to making schools

a less than welcoming and dynamic place for young people, but,

taken cumulatively, they are conspiring to make the experience

of school something that children learn to hate.

1. In the trash-bin of history: low order thinking skills

Standardized tests, typically multiple-choice and lacking

in breadth and depth, tend to measure low-order thinking skills,

the kind of short-sequence logic operations which are routine

and involve immediate recall of discrete but obvious facts. There

are two problems here: first, these types of questions are often

abstract, with no connection to a student’s life and are therefore

inherently uninteresting and unable to pierce through to their

real-world concerns. We know, or should, that connection to a

student’s identity is one of the surest ways we can bring him or

her into the world of academia.31 In a word, students find these

problems unimportant and useless, and many don’t care enough

to put forward a good effort. Second, the kind of skill-set that

these questions build is rapidly becoming obsolete in today’s

economy. When you look at jobs that are being outsourced to

Asia, it is exactly this kind of rote, sequenced operation that

workers in India and China are able to do much more cheaply

than the best-trained American workers.32 Bottom-line: even if

American students master these kinds of short, logical operations,

executing them over and over again, the reality is there

won’t be much demand for these skills in the world of work.

2. The future is in the right-hemisphere.

The skills that are most necessary for today’s work environment

are much more right-brained: creativity, whole analysis,

a collaborative people orientation, aesthetic appreciation,

complex reasoning and critical problem-solving.33 It is a fact

that standardized tests do not, and cannot, measure these kinds

of aptitudes.34 Right-brained abilities are much more dependent

on instructor modeling, personal exploration and experience,

effective pedagogy and inspiring curriculum. This is precisely

why America’s best private schools do not overly bother themselves

with standardized tests, but, rather, attempt to directly

build academic skills—love for learning, creative problem solving,

stimulating reading and discussion, critical thinking—that

can be transferred to other endeavors.

3. A lousy way to teach and learn.

Standardized tests result in the kind of “drill and kill”

pedagogy that we know is ineffective. In his ground-breaking

book How Children Fail, John Holt wrote this about how and

why children learn:

The child who wants to know something remembers

it and uses it once he has it; the child who learns

something to please or appease someone else forgets

it when the need for pleasing or the danger of not appeasing

is past.

Brace yourselves: Holt wrote this 50 years ago in 1958!

Teaching in a standardized testing environment encourages

lousy teaching techniques—memorization, drill-and-kill, rote

learning—and results in the kind of shallow, fleeting and compartmentalized

knowledge that is ineffective and prone to turn

children off from school. We have known this for over five decades—

why would we go back to a kind of instructional practice

that never worked in the first place?

4. Learning is natural and inherently valued.

As mentioned above, a standardized classroom results

in poor pedagogy that gets the learning equation backward.

Learning should be pursued for its intrinsic value, not because

someone is forcing one to learn. Why do students put in hours

and hours rehearsing for musical concerts, plays or practicing

sports? Because, in fact, they see intrinsic value in those activities;

in a word, they choose to pursue them. The same could and

should be true for our academic subjects if and when we focus

on giving students choices and responsibility for designing a

learning plan. Course work should have much greater relevance

to a student, as well as a specific and practical application beyond

school. Mostly this means making explicit the connection

between a given subject and a student’s life—contextualizing it,

bringing it home personally, giving them and their community a

stake in seeing that learning matters.35 Once students are hooked

on learning—not for reward or avoiding punishment—they will

do far more for themselves and their intellectual development

than we could ever imagine. Unfortunately, in the current environment,

students are told repeatedly: the reason they need to

spend hours learning some abstract, disconnected operation or

set of facts is that it will someday be on an exam.

5. We are ruining brains.

Brain development is perhaps the most pressing reason

why we need to rethink our current high-stakes testing mania.

By age 9 or so, young people have the physical structure—the

hardware, if you will—of their brain in place. Over the next ten

to twelve years it is crucial that they actively utilize different

brain functions—develop the software—in order for it to reach

its maximum potential.36 Structured complexity in the classroom,

an enriched array of choices and modes of assessment,

varied social groupings all contribute to growing the brain in

particularly fruitful ways. And so does creating an environment

in which adequate time, physical activity and low stress levels

are baseline considerations.37-38 Similarly, the aesthetic appreciation

found in music and the arts as well as more contemplative

activities like spirituality and compassion are not things that

happen without schools making them a priority, or at least a possibility.

All of these are currently being shunted aside in our

mad rush to increase test scores. As a result, we are in danger of

producing a generation of learners who cannot critically think,

appreciate the arts, nor marvel at the profound mysteries of our

universe. And, tragically, once these abilities are neglected long

enough, up through the age of 24 or so, there is less of a chance

that they will ever be fully integrated into a person’s intellectual


6. Exams merely ratify the achievement gap.

The oft-stated purpose of NCLB is to narrow the achievement

gap between whites and students of color. Yet, we know,

and have known for a long time, that the most reliable predictor

of a student’s standardized test score is the square-footage of

their principal residence.40 In other words, students of affluent

families almost universally score higher on exams than do students

in under-privileged homes. Researchers have found that

by the age of six, children in affluent families have been exposed

to fully 2 million more words than have been children in more

trying circumstances.41 They are more likely to have been read

to regularly, engaged in enrichment activities like travel and

museums and also to have had access to adequate nutrition and

health-care. Is it any wonder that there is a substantial achievement

gap when there is a veritable gulf of difference between the

haves and the have-nots in America? (I don’t even understand

why we are surprised by this.) But to then take the one reliable

instrument which has always privileged well-to-do students and

make it the basis of comparison and academic achievement for

every kid in America is simply to lock in place existing inequities.

Poor children are, by far, more likely to drop out, have a

stressful home-life, get suspended, repeatedly move and change

schools, run afoul of the law and act out during class.42 They are

also least likely to be interested in or motivated by abstract questions

or the need to score highly on an instrument far removed

from their personal experience. We are not closing the achievement

gap under NCLB as major research studies have shown,43

but, rather, we are confirming and institutionalizing at the level

of policy how real and profound are the differences between rich

and poor.

7. More anxiety = less learning.

High-stakes standardized tests increase the levels of fear

and anxiety of young students, and it is a well-documented fact

in education that the higher the levels of affective interference,

the less able students are to complete even low-order thinking

tasks—not to mention the more reflective, higher-order skills

which are crucial for brain development and future employment.

The stories coming in from around the country, even

around the world,44 of students unable to sleep at night, acting

out, exhausted from stress45 and generally working themselves

into emotional wrecks46 as a result of hype surrounding exams47

is truly disgusting. These are children, some as young as eight

years old, being put in highly stressful situations where their test

performance may have extremely serious repercussions for their

teachers, their parents and the fate of their school. Why are we

doing this again? Oh, right—for the good of the children.

8. Narrowing the curriculum to a lifeless skeleton.

Fact: 71% of schools48 report having to cut back on important

electives like art, music and gym class in order to find

more time for remedial instruction in math and reading. Some

critics might consider this a step in the right direction, more like

our highly competitive adversaries in China, India and Japan.

But, as previously mentioned, in terms of brain development,

pedagogical excellence, real-world skills and fostering intrinsic

interest in learning, this is a huge net loss for children and our

society. Doing more and more of what is not working does not

equate with an effective educational program. We are asking

children to do the metaphoric equivalent of bang their heads

against a concrete wall for hours every day—and when we discover

that it isn’t working, we are urging them to do it harder

and for longer periods of time.

9. The higher the stakes, the lower the bar.

High-stakes standardized tests are not good measures of

academic excellence. As mentioned previously, they measure

a narrow band of logical sequence operations which are useful

only for taking further exams. In fact, because states are under

tremendous pressure to show that their academic programs are

working, the truth is that state exams are becoming less and less

demanding.49 It is a truism: just as in gym class where every student

must jump over a bar at some minimum height, the temptation

is to continually lower the bar until a vast majority can

make it. This is not driving the system toward Olympian heights

of excellence; on the contrary, it is driving the system toward

lower and lower levels of acceptability. Why is it that some

states like Georgia and North Carolina have such remarkable

pass rates on their State-wide exams but such a dismal pass-rate

on the NAEP exam?50 The answer is that high-stakes exam bars

are not set very high, and are certainly not indicative of students

who are ready for college, work or the complex demands of being

an adult. Look at the amount of remedial instruction now

required on college campuses before students can even begin

taking introductory classes. On the route of trying to measure

and prove academic excellence, we are guaranteeing ourselves a

progressively larger share of mediocrity. We are being dumbeddown

in a systematic, organized and expensive way.

10. Shallow is as shallow does.

The American public’s perception of how public education

is performing continues to slide in an era of standardized

testing. Surveys confirm that Americans view public education

unfavorably, saying that standards are too lax and that students

are leaving with low skill-levels.51 Interestingly, when the same

respondents are asked about their own public school, the one

at which they send their children, their perceptions are that the

school performs quite well.52 In other words, it is the “other”

schools that aren’t doing well, the ones that are educating “other”

children. No doubt, media coverage of school shootings, falling

test scores and inadequate supplies and resources contribute to

a general perception that schools are failing. But even when the

news is apparently good, when pass rates or test scores move up,

the public is being encouraged to believe in a very shallow and

unreliable measure of what makes for a “quality” education.53 As

much as students are being dumbed-down by the lowered bar of

high-stakes exams, their parents and the public are being asked

to swallow whole that the complex, interrelated and open-ended

process of education can be reduced to a single number, up or

down, black or white. Standardized exams are equally adept at

dumbing-down the American public—the very ones being asked

at election-time to vote on school-funding levels, school-board

candidates, and—yes, sadly—even presidential candidates.

11. We are undermining and losing our best people.

As an educator, I can attest to the increasing levels of

frustration and dissatisfaction within the ranks of teachers. We

are losing fully 50% of new teachers in the first five years of embarking

on what they hoped was a lifetime career.54 We are also

losing a staggering number of veteran teachers, some through

retirement, others through the frustration of seeing what has

happened to education.55 Think about it: are we really supposed

to believe that a teacher comes home at the end of the day and

says to her husband—“Honey, it’s been an unbelievable day at

school; our reading scores just shot up 2 percent over last year.”

The real truth is that educators are made from a complex

confl uence of personal factors, and principal among them are

a love of learning and a kind of reverence for making a difference

in the lives of youngsters. By subverting that, by elevating

merely routine performance to the front of what makes for education,

we are actively undermining the very rationale for why

good teachers want to teach.56 And slowly, over the course of a

generation, if we lose enough truly inspiring educators, we will

lose their students too—the ones who see no particular reason to

want to go into teaching themselves.

12. We are undermining essential American values.

Last, but not least, and perhaps most insidiously, highstakes

standardized exams support a very dangerous world-view.

Jim Cummins, the intrepid advocate for literacy and second language

acquisition, calls the NCLB mindset “an ideology.”57 It is

one that believes there is a single measure of human excellence,

that conformity to the designs of those in authority is mandatory

and that deviating in any way from the norm is wrong and

to be punished Had it been our principal educational impulse

since America’s inception, I believe there would not have been

developments like Jazz and women’s suffrage, or figures like

Anne Sullivan, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony or Franklin

Delano Roosevelt—that we would be today a much less confident,

innovative and resilient people.

At its core, the high-stakes standardized testing movement

is asking students not only to not think for themselves, but

to passively accept that all knowledge is controlled by authority.

That you exist only as an individual, not as part of some larger

social whole, and that you will be successful or fail based upon

your individual ability to do exactly what others expect you to.

If you step outside of that and try to do something based upon

conviction, creativity or critical insight, your academic record

along with a raft of social opportunities will be damaged. In

fully embracing a high-stakes standardized testing regime, we

are subverting a substantial part of what makes America unique

and productive: our ingenuity, our self-reliance, our faith that

we make a better tomorrow through creativity and collaboration,

not conforming to others’ ideas about what we ought to know or

be able to do. Instead, we are being asked to stay passively in

our chair and make a selection from answers provided, obey all

commands and regulations—no matter how punitive, ridiculous

or restrictive—blithely accept the accuracy, fairness and lack

of transparency surrounding the exams, and voice not a single

word in opposition to the entire noxious enterprise.

Standardizaton versus Customization

To be fair, there are other voices, education experts, policy

wonks and business executives,58 who see it different and

want to continue even more aggressively down the path of tougher

standards, measurable accountability and doling out rewards

and punishment based on test scores. They have their reasons.59

They are well-educated (in a non-high stakes environment, of

course) and they aim to convince: We have to measure what is

happening with public dollars. This is about system accountability.

We need to keep up with what other countries are doing.

Why should poor kids be left without options in the inner city?

Two of the largest and best-funded of these groups are

the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable,

and they have banded together to fight any major changes to

the No Child Left Behind Law as it faces renewal. Their reason:

“competitiveness.” As Charles E.M. Kolb, president for the

Committee for Economic Development, a Washington-based

group of business, academic, and philanthropic leaders puts it:

“Business is probably the largest consumer of American education”,

and the priority of learning should be “having people in

the workforce who are capable and have the skills you need in

the workforce today.”60

I have already spoken to the issue of “real-world” skills:

how quickly low-order thinking jobs are being outsourced

abroad, and how 21st century workers will need a much more

flexible right-brained skill-set—whole analysis, critical thinking,

creativity, an aesthetic sensibility, and a host of collaborative

people skills—not to mention the intellectual flexibility to

constantly learn new things and be able to switch careers as the

modern economy evolves and restructures.

But let’s put that aside. Let’s consider Kolb’s claim that

“business is the largest consumer of American education.” This

gets to the nub of America’s lack of understanding about the

goals of education. Do we really agree that children are going to

school so that they can serve the interests of the economy? That

is, that the goal of learning is to prepare students so that they

can successfully work for a local business or corporation? Or, is

the goal of learning to further that individual’s—and their family’s—

own prospects?
That is, to help them discover who they

really are, what they value, and prepare them to live a healthy,

dynamic and meaningful life? I submit, by tradition and routine,

that the goal of public education is the latter. That, in fact,

student achievement is higher, more sustained and more valued

when student identity and autonomy are affi rmed and enhanced.

And also, that the largest “consumers” of American education

are the very people who need and use these schools—students,

along with their families: the exact citizens upon whom all of us

are dependent in a governmental system “of the people, by the

people and for the people.”

The core of this debate over whose interests education is

meant to serve characterizes a simple but important distinction

in our approach to how learning actually works: On one side are

people who believe that education is centered in the learner, with

their interests, passions and enthusiasm as the driving force. On

the other are people who see learning as being more about the

system and adults: developing effective structures that allow the

system to manage, control and direct children to “achieve” what

the system determines is important, measuring that and handing

out rewards to those who comply.

The latter impulse, which generally falls under the rubric

of “standardization,” requires students to conform to a certain

mold and become, more or less, products that are kicked-on

from school when they “pass” a minimum level of uniformity

with everyone else. The former, which might best be defined by

the term “customization,” asks that we listen to each individual,

establish relationships, help them build identity and assets as

learners and then provide assistance in determining a workable

route—given their affinities and abilities—into the future. One

side looks fearfully at young people as inputs to an economic

scheme that might not be capable of achieving a minimally viable

result (a la A Nation At Risk); the other looks optimistically

at learning and seeks to maximize what students can become,

create and provide the world.

Both sides say they want the best for children. Yet

only one side actually takes time to ask what children want for

themselves—only one side supports getting students to confront

their world honestly—in full possession of vital literacy skills

and critical perspectives. And only one side has the professional

training, background and experience to fully understand

the complexities of human learning and how to make it happen.

And this to me is the crucial difference between standardization

advocates and genuinely effective educators. Who is willing

to listen? Who is willing to go down the aisles of classrooms

and discover what it is that kids really want for themselves, for

their lives and the world? Who wants the truth, original and authentic,

to emerge from a child’s encounter with learning? And

who, looking at the economy and education as a series of interconnected

systems and policies to be controlled and managed,

assumes an infallible knowledge about what every kid needs,

then forces them to jump through the same ludicrous hoop no

matter the human cost?

And it has to be said: the agents of standardization are

not nearly as interested in the lives of poor and disenfranchised

students as they claim. For the truth is this: well-to-do students

and their families have access to fully “customized” learning

experiences—tutors, charter schools, private schools, academic

camps, test-prep centers, travel, enrichment of all kinds—whereas

the poor are consigned to the dumbed-down standards of accountability

and vacuous debates about whether they can obtain

these low-level skills and out-dated curriculum from their local

school, or, with government help, attend one further away.61 In

either case, they end up without an education aimed at furthering

their unique abilities, but rather, curriculum and instruction designed

to make them like everyone else who is not succeeding.

The agents of standardization have an awesome advantage

in this debate: the American public does not have a high

tolerance for nuanced discussions about education policy. Tell

them that schools are bad, that numbers from test scores prove

it, that the younger generation is about to ruin this country and

a majority buy it. Ask them to consider a list of qualitative reasons

why that scenario is a misconception and a massive fraud

and a majority will beg off for not enough time.

I am not suggesting that educating children is easy or uncomplicated.

Nor that it is currently being done well or should

be radically more expensive. What I am saying is that we are

doing a dreadfully dumb thing in embracing whole-heartedly

the standardized testing agenda. It is unproven, and a rotten

educational strategy: harmful to kids who need education most,

fundamentally unfair, counter-productive to brain development

and ignorant of the demands the world makes on kids as adults.

It also represents a fundamental change in the goals of public

education: from serving the genuine needs of learners to catering

to the demands of business concerns and an unjust economic

arrangement. And I also submit that believing we can reduce the

very complex, profound and multi-faceted process of educating

a child to a single number, to see those numbers as everything we

need to know about millions of professionals working to educate

kids, and then to assert that all will be better if we just hand over

control to bureaucrats in Washington is the height of arrogance

and reveals a severely authoritarian impulse.

The high-stakes, measurable accountability advocates

are in ascendancy, and with every indication that the system they

put in place is not effective and not working, they demand more

power and more control over how we teach children—while simultaneously

decrying the scourge of taxation that sustains public

schools. They variously blame teachers, parents, the bureaucracy

and notions of public education itself. But never do they

provide real solutions, real resources or new ideas on how we

can restore America’s faith in a dynamic public education sector—

one that utilizes the latest pedagogy, curriculum, brain-research,

technology and inspired instructors. Rather, they use the

cudgel of “testing data” to fl og everyone in their way and spout

an endless parade of statistics to confi rm what everyone already

knows: we need real reform, real ideas and real resources if we

want to change the status-quo in America’s public schools.

But even before that, and now more than ever, America

needs one thing above all: an informed, dedicated, and effective

teacher corps. One willing to effectively combat outmoded,

counter-productive and wrong-headed educational strategies by

using well-grounded research, experience and insight. One that

has the courage and vision to articulate and create thoughtful,

dynamic and highly relevant instructional programs that help

every child in America realize their potential as full human

beings. And, I believe, that must start with the set of teachers

whose very job it is to engage multiple perspectives, enhance

communication and build critical literacy; those whose job it is

to work with language and human expression to further ennoble

the cause of being human: teachers of the language arts.


1. Houston, Denver, and the state of Florida all approved

programs to provide “merit pay” to teachers based on

test scores of students. In Houston, the upshot of administering

these bonuses resulted in a chaotic scene in which teachers

complained bitterly about why, how and if the process approximated

reality. Denver backed down from its plan to extend a

pilot program across the district. Whereas, Florida is dealing

with problems of testing errors and fairness to the extent that the

legislature is revamping the original law only one year after it

was implemented.

< http://www.susanohanian.org/

show_atrocities.html?id=6905 >

< http://www.questia.com/googleScholar.



646413792?docId=5009329158 >

< http://www.uft.org/news/teacher/reality/

pay_performance >

2. Currently, 27 states produce school report cards,

most of them based significantly on test scores.

< http://www.nea.org/accountability/

reportcards.html >

3. Even the U.S. Congress is on the case of assessing

the wisdom of using high-stakes testing for promotion.

< http://www.nap.edu/html/highstakes >

4. Both Education Week and the New York Times have

recently raised serious questions about the quality of standardized

tests given their rapid increase in number and importance.

< http://www.edweek.org/ew/

articles/2007/07/23/44toch_web.h26.html >

< http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/22/



1185655644-SIUKO8HwQ3c/Olangj+N1Q >

5. The Fairtest site is one of the few credible and independent

sources of information about standardized testing.

< http://www.fairtest.org/facts/fallout.htm >

6. Education Week broaches the question.

< http://www.edweek.org/ew/





7. This is just one of many “wonks” who are willing to

go there on trusting standardized tests more than the judgment

of the professional educator.

< http://www.eduwonk.com/2006/11/

test-scores-and-grades.html >

8. The “free” market, as espoused by Republicans, is

most often depicted as “the” savior for public education.

< http://www.heartland.org/

Article.cfm?artId=17727 >

9. How are young people supposed to learn and practice

democracy if they do not see it and understand it from their

experience in school?

< http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/

recordDetail?accno=EJ725990 >

10. Fairtest is considered one of the few unbiased sources

of information about standardized testing.

< http://www.fairtest.org/ >

11. An extensive review of the literature reveals the one

valuable role for standardized tests.

< http://www.fairtest.org/facts/

formulative_assessment.html >

12. Once again, Fairtest has the data and the quality information.

< http://www.fairtest.org/facts/nratests.html >

13. Criterion-referenced exams are sometimes called

“standards referenced exams.”

< http://www.fairtest.org/facts/csrtests.html >

14. Anyone who can prove standardized testing’s efficacy would have lifetime job prospects. The National Academy

of Sciences is no small player in this debate. Can you find any

evidence in peer-reviewed studies?

< http://www.123helpme.com/

preview.asp?id=34046 >

15. Test scores have either inched up within the margin

of error, stayed the same or declined.

< http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0MJG/

is_1_6/ai_n15969879/pg_12 >

16. Why would test scores be going down for our best

and brightest? Perhaps because we are focusing on minimum

standards instead of achieving excellence.

< http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F60

E15F93A5A0C738FDDA10894DE404482 >

17. International comparisons have their own problems

but clearly the U.S. is not exactly sprinting to the front of the

pack in the standardized testing era.

< http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-

Differences/2007/05/should_data_matter.html >

18. NAEP scores show little movement nationally, leading

many to suspect states are lowering their standards to give

the “appearance” of improvement. And Gerald Bracey has had

to work overtime to swat down claims made by Education Secretary

Spellings about the success of NCLB testing.

< http://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/commissioner/

remarks2007/5_16_2007.asp >





+Education&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us >

19. America sometimes believes that it can ignore, avoid

and transcend the long history of humanity: Campbell says otherwise.

< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campbell’s_Law >

20. Berliner and Nichols demonstrate conclusively the

fatuousness of the standardized testing myth.

< http://www.tcrecord.org/

Content.asp?ContentId=13828 >

21. Compiling all the individual states and their errors

would be a heroic undertaking.

< http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/21/


0c6b305ed4a2&ei=5070 >

22. Their missions may vary, but the focus of their vision

does not.

< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_school >

23. Captured from http://www.blakeschool.org/academics/

index.html on 7-28-2007.

24. The original report makes an interesting read in light

of the 1990s economic success.

< http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html >

25. Gerald Bracey has the data to reinforce his ideas

about why A Nation At Risk was way off base.

< http://www.susanohanian.org/show_atrocities.

html?id=492 >

26. There has never been any country or school system

in the world that has recorded 100% profi ciency on any meaningful exam.

< http://schoolsmatter.blogspot.com/2007/03/

nclb-0-chance-of-meeting-profi ciency.html >

27. There are many players calling for “tougher standards”

on students and teachers, but the Aspen Institute’s NCLB

Commission is among the highest profi le.

< http://www.aspeninstitute.org/site/c.


on_No_Child_Left_Behind.htm >

28. Dropouts are notoriously hard to measure, but many

people believe it has reached an “epidemic” level amongst the

urban poor.

< http://abcnews.go.com/US/

story?id=2667532&page=1 >

29. Harvard’s Civil Rights Project weighs in with authority

and long experience on this question.

< http://www.edletter.org/current/ferguson.shtml >

30. We have known the shortcomings of programs like

NCLB for a long time; in fact, this is an old idea wrapped in a

new cover.

< http://www.amazon.com/Many-Children-Left-Behind-

Damaging/dp/0807004596 >

< http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0807004596/

ref=sib_dp_pt/104-8955214-6838341 >

31. One of the premiere thinkers about literacy, Jim

Cummins, knows a bad thing when he sees it.

< http://www.dailykos.com/

storyonly/2007/7/26/131722/394 >

32. Maintaining profit margins in today’s economy

means a race to the bottom.

< http://www.susanohanian.org/

show_commentary.php?id=473 >

33. Some business leaders “get it”, and are attempting to

move education into the 21st century.

< http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/


view&id=254&Itemid=120 >

34. Applied thinking, creating new knowledge, critical

thinking—we know what kids need to be successful but we are

not doing it consistently at the K-12 level.

< http://www.edweek.org/ew/


html?levelId=1000& >

35. Among many books and thinkers espousing “human

development” above the need to sort and measure, Thomas

Armstrong stands out.

< http://www.tcrecord.org/

Content.asp?ContentID=13942 >

36. Dr. David Walsh, who lives here in Minnesota, is a

leading thinker about adolescent brain development.

< http://books.google.com/books?id=YOaR4angPQk



5LB&sig=LxHSVz5pR1Btaedu2660fz1g0M0 >

37. Dr. Eric Jensen is also a leading thinker on brain development,

particularly as it relates to educational design.

< http://books.google.com/books?id=iftjAQAACAAJ

&dq=Eric+Jensen,+Enriching+the+Brain >

38. Neuroscience is quite clear, united and convincing

on the needs of adolescents relative to brain development. Why

don’t we listen to their recommendations more often?

< http://www.ascd.org/portal/site/ascd/template.








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