(How perfectly ironic is it that the above clip was preceded by an advertisement by HP that runs on the tagline “Every student learns differently.” Now let me talk about standardized testing of those different-learning individuals, shall I?)
It’s testing season again.
If only that meant we could shoot them.
I have been reluctant to write about testing from a teacher’s perspective, because it feels so obvious: of course we hate tests. Of course we do. Everybody knows it, right?
But in the last week I’ve been asked by two different people – one a current high school student, not one of mine but one who presumably knew I’d be good for a rant; the other an auditor for the state of Oregon, who sent me (and presumably thousands of others – but wouldn’t it be funny if it was just me? If some random number generator landed on my Roulette-wheel slot, and my answers were the only ones that mattered?) a link to a survey looking for feedback – about standardized testing. And I’ve had to give standardized tests to my students, and I am working to prepare my AP students for standardized tests that are coming up soon and that are freaking them out; and in my discussions of those tests with those students, I have been sending mixed messages. And presumably thousands of other teachers have done exactly the same.
So there is a reason to write about this. Because maybe it’s not so obvious that teachers hate standardized tests.
But it should be.
I know I’ve written about standardized tests before in terms of grades and evaluation, and that criticism holds true: we put too much weight on test scores only because they are easy to understand. We feel like knowing that someone scored a 1500 on their SATs, and a 142 on their IQ test, tells us something about that person’s capacity and ability and potential. But think of it this way: if I tell you that I scored a 92 on my driver’s test, does that tell you how well I drive? Of course not: it tells you how well I drive when there’s a DMV employee with a clipboard in the car watching my every move. The situation is artificial, and therefore the results are not representative of my genuine abilities or normal performance. And the testing people would say yes: we create a situation of artificial intensity in order to put someone to the test; that’s what a test is, a crucible that melts away the impurities and discovers someone’s purest essence, so to speak. My driving abilities under pressure should represent my best driving abilities, right?
But they’re not, are they? As I drive around town, I will not be driving the same way I did when I drove for the clipboard-man. I will not be as alert, and I will not be as cautious, and I will not be as scrupulous in following the rules. And because of that, I will not drive as well. I will not be using my full driving capacity because I won’t feel the pressure. And so which is my purest essence: the things I can do in an artificial high-pressure situation, or the things I do on a daily basis? Which is my verbal language ability: the 720 I scored on my SATs, or the successes and failures in my day-to-day reading and writing, my failure to comprehend reading material that I didn’t pay much attention to, my failure to make someone else understand my point in an email or a letter or a memo? Wouldn’t it be the latter? Will Durant wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do.” (Often attributed to Aristotle, because Durant was writing about and paraphrasing Aristotle when he wrote it. But Durant was the one who actually said that.) So I would argue that it is our daily practice that shows our actual skill level, not the level we can force ourselves to when put on the spot: that reveals much more about our ability to handle pressure. Even that is flawed: because test pressure is different from actual crisis pressure, because tests are expected and planned, and we can prepare for them, study hard, psych ourselves up, have a good breakfast, bring extra #2 pencils; whereas crises happen without foreknowledge and with infinitely more chaos. What does my ability to handle clipboard-man pressure reveal about my ability to drive in a haboob?
(Note to non-Arizonans: a haboob is a sudden and intense sandstorm or duststorm. It is one of the hazards that Arizona drivers face. But I only included that because I wanted to write “haboob.”)
That’s right. Standardized tests are, like all tests, supposed to tell us how well a student is doing, right? To show us where the student is struggling, so we can focus our instruction on that area and help the student improve? Right: except standardized tests don’t do that any more, because they don’t reveal their questions, nor do they show a student’s right and wrong answers. The scores on standardized tests are also becoming more obtuse: test companies wish to preserve their market, and so they make their score reports esoteric, in order to ensure that people require the company’s services to interpret the test scores. Students don’t get a 70%, a 95%, or an A; they get a number without any context at all. Either a percentile rank, which tells you how well you did in comparison with other students, or you get a raw score that means essentially nothing. When I taught in Oregon and pushed my students through the proprietary Oregon reading test, the OAKS (Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, isn’t that clever; if test companies and others who sell education materials excel at anything, it is generating semi-clever acronyms.), they got their score automatically at the end of the 54-question multiple choice test. The highest score I ever saw was a 274. The lowest score I ever saw was a 206. So you tell me what that means. Sure, 274 is higher than 206. But does the 206 mean that the student got nothing right? Did the 274 student get everything right? Does that mean the 274 needs no further instruction in reading? Does the 206 kid go back to elementary school? Who knows: the range of scores is wider than the number of questions on the test. It’s not even a matter of multiple points, or partial credit; it’s a multiple choice test. And even if I could know how many questions a student got right or wrong, I don’t get to see the questions, because of fears about test security, because the testing company doesn’t want to have to create entirely new tests every year because that’s expensive. So all I as the teacher know is: the student got a low score on the reading test. Tell me how I plan instruction to help that student improve.
Which brings us, I suppose, to the real problem with standardized tests: students don’t care. It was extremely rare for the students who got the lowest scores to be the ones who actually have the most trouble with reading. Those students, aware of their troubles with the subject, tried harder than anyone else, because they wanted to do well, they wanted to improve, they wanted to succeed. In almost every case, the lowest scores came from those who simply didn’t try on the test, who clicked through the screens guessing randomly rather than paying attention to the (hideously boring) reading passages, because they didn’t think the tests mattered. And they were right: even when I attached a grade in my class to the test scores, it was only one grade, and it didn’t ever change much in the grand scheme of things. Besides, how many of my students really cared about their grades? Cared so much, that is, that they would take two hours to complete a test they could zip through in about twelve minutes? The students who did well were those who wanted to do well on the test; the students who scored the highest generally weren’t my very best students in terms of language ability, but rather my very best students in terms of diligence. What a shock: standardized tests reveal the best standardized students, the ones who respond best to the usual motivators, the ones who can put forth the most consistent effort on the most tedious tasks. The ones who can work without passion and never feel the lack. Essentially, the ones who are the best at not caring: because they can not care, and still complete the task.
Tests do not find the smartest people; they find the best cubicle monkeys, the best worker drones. And perhaps that’s what schools are for: we have surrendered the idea that education builds a meritocracy, that the cream rises to the top, that the very best students at the very best schools are the ones who should be in charge or our companies or our country; no, we’d rather have the guy who swills beer and watches football, the guy who goes to church, the regular Joe as our president, and we’d rather have the guy who shows results in charge of the company – tangible results. Increased profits. Higher test scores.
This is the real value of standardized tests. They allow people who profit thereby to manipulate the system. The new politician, the new superintendent, the new principal, they come in, they point to the low test scores; because no matter how successful a school is, there will be low test scores. Especially when test scores are reported as percentile ranks; because that means there has to be a bottom rank as well as a top rank – even if everyone who took the test scored 95% and above, percentile ranks simply compare those students to each other, so the ones who scored the 95% now get placed in the bottom rank of students, because other students scored 96% and above. So the new hired gun points at the low test score and says, “This is unacceptable. I will change this.” Then they do a few obvious things: maybe they dedicate more computer labs to the tests, or longer testing periods. Maybe they offer prizes, like pizza parties, to the students if they do well. Maybe they force the teachers to provide free after-school tutoring to students who are struggling. Maybe they buy a test-prep program – conveniently provided by the same company who runs the testing, because why wouldn’t you use them? They make the tests, of course they can tell you how to pass the tests! And then the scores go up. The new principal or superintendent or politician points to that raised score, they claim success, they collect huzzahs; then they parlay that result into a better position, moving higher up the ladder, lifted skyward by their new reputation as an Education Reformer.
Tests are very good at that. They are also very good at making profits for the companies that make the tests – mostly the College Board, which runs the SATs and the AP and ACT tests, and Pearson Testing, which makes pretty much every state assessment for public schools – who make billions off of their purported ability to reveal important information about a student’s learning, and about a school’s success in teaching, when they actually reveal nothing of the kind. At least the College Board releases their test questions after the fact. But they take a three-hour test, following a year’s intensive study, and boil it down to a number between 1 and 5. Then they return their test scores attached to advertisements for products, books and seminars and training and websites, that will absolutely no question guaranteed raise those 1’s to 3’s, and those 3’s to 5’s.
Teach those students more? Help them to learn? Pssh. Why would we do that? We can raise their scores. What else matters?
This matters: every minute, every consultant, every dollar dedicated to test prep is time and money and effort and people taken away from actual education. When students are learning how to succeed on tests, they are not learning how to read and write and think and calculate and plan and analyze and evaluate and hypothesize and create. They’re not even learning how to play dodgeball.
I’d rather they spent the same amount of time playing dodgeball. At least they’d have some fun and get some exercise. And when it’s a question of my tax dollars going to buy tests, or going to buy those big red rubber balls, I’d rather subsidize Wham-o than Pearson any day.
It’s just like health care, and the military. We spend more money on education than most other countries, and yet we don’t get good results.
In 2011, the United States spent $11,841 per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student on elementary and secondary education, an amount 35 percent higher than the OECD average of $8,789. At the postsecondary level, U.S. expenditures per FTE student were $26,021, almost twice as high as the OECD average of $13,619. Source
Why? Because this is capitalism. Our money funds profit. It funds profit for the companies that make the tests, and for the administrators and politicians who come in, raise scores, and then move on, without having actually improved anything, without having had any effect on education itself. I have no doubt there are teachers who do the same thing: who swoop in to low-performing schools, teach their students a good trick or two, bribe them with donuts on test day, and then reap benefits in the form of a reputation as a reformer, and maybe even merit pay bonuses. I myself have profited from my predecessor’s low test scores, because the fact that mine (and when I say “mine,” I mean “The scores earned by students I’ve taught”) are higher helps to ensure my job security. But the difference is, I actually teach. And I’ve never earned merit pay.
But I have helped to create this problem. I have told my students, in all sincerity, taking advantage of my reputation as a trustworthy authority figure with their best interests in mind, that tests are important and they should try their hardest. I have attached grades in my class to test scores that I can’t predict, that I can’t really improve, and that I can’t even see, in some cases; I have given students grades in my class based on their effort on the state tests, based largely on how long they took to complete it while I watched. I have shook my head and gotten annoyed, and I have even lectured my students, when they blow off the tests as unimportant. Right now I have students who are paying almost $100 apiece and who knows how much in stress and anxiety to take the AP test simply because I have decided that those who take the AP test get an automatic 100% on the final exam in my class – and some of them have told me straight out that they’re doing it to buy the grade from me. I have taken money to fix grades, and I haven’t even gotten the profit myself. I should ask College Board for a bonus.
I have told parents that test scores matter. I have offered ways for students to improve their test scores. I have even given out those atrocious, terrible test prep books from Princeton Review and Kaplan and the like, and told people they can use them for practice in order to master the tests. Not the material: the tests. I have sat through meetings about test scores and discussed the reasons why they’re low, and ways to raise them. So has every other teacher I know, and presumably every teacher across this country.
When put to the test, the real test of understanding and caring about education, I and my fellow teachers have failed.
In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., said this:
“[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
“Now, what is the difference between the two? […] Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”
Is there any better description of how test scores make us feel? A false sense of superiority and inferiority? A segregation between the haves and the have-nots?
“Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.”
So: students. Who, when it comes to having any real say in their own education, have been left behind.
I agree with Dr. King’s argument. I think he’s right, that we have a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws – and unjust policies – when we know them for what they are. And so I would like to call on my fellow educators to join me in finding ways to resist, non-violently, of course, the invasion of standardized testing in American schools. Let me quote Dr. King again:
“I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
Or, in this case, the highest respect for actual education. I believe that we must defend education against the tests: we should begin simply, by telling the truth, by calling the tests what they are: a sham and a fraud. Useless. A waste of time and money and resources. A drain on students and teachers and schools and the entire country, perpetuated only for the profit of a select few. Say it. Say it in public, say it to your students, say it to their parents, say it to administrators, say it to your fellow teachers, and help them to start saying it, too.
We are teachers: we must be the leaders in this fight. We won’t have to risk jail, not for refusing to pretend the tests have value. We may risk our jobs, but there are ways to counter that, particularly if we are good enough teachers to help students learn and therefore improve, with or without test scores.
If I may end by quoting a less august source, but one no less poetic and no less accurate than Dr. King:
It has to start somewhere.
It has to start sometime.
What better place than here?
What better time than now?
All Hell can’t stop us now.