I WAS WORKING OUT RECENTLY, trying to burn off a few of my candy-for-breakfast calories, when I ran into Ray Spicher, an old high school buddy. He spent a career in education and worked as principal in the Cincinnati, Princeton and Madiera schools. We talked shop and I asked what he thought about standardized testing.
His answer perfectly captured the central dilemma. He said he thought testing helped kids at the low end in school, forcing teachers to devote attention to their needs. Then he added (this is not a perfect quote, because both of us were huffing and puffing and pedaling stationary bikes), “I used to tell my staff whatever you measure, you’ll get more of it. If you test for ‘more cars in the parking lot,’ you'll get more cars in the parking lot.”
So: Let me give you examples from my experience. The last year I taught, 2007-2008, we were told in no uncertain terms to focus on standardized tests. Principals really had no choice since they would also be judged according to test results. When it came to my lesson plan on pioneers, cheap land in early America, and the roots of the “American Dream,” I had to kill that topic because it wasn’t going to be covered on the test. Instead, I had to worry about a question or two on Shay’s Rebellion or a query about Songhai trade.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think we need more cars in the parking lot with bumper stickers that read, “Shay’s Rebellion.”
I taught a long time and got to see what happened when states first started using standardized tests, and when that didn’t help, got to see what federal pressure might achieve. When I was teaching American history, and free to do what I thought best, I used to ask seventh graders to take a test and identify the fifty states. I’m sure some of my former students will remember fondly how, if they failed a test, I called parents, ratted them out, and required them to stay after school and retake the test.
(There’s a lesson, there, too, but not one you can measure on a standardized test.)
Now, let’s say, in an average year, I have 140 students. By the time I’m done all but two or three know at least 35 states, the minimum required; 138 know where California is; 137 can identify Florida, 120 know Wisconsin is next to Michigan. Maybe 34 know all fifty states.
In the early 90s, however, the State of Ohio came up with a brilliant plan—a Ninth Grade Proficiency Test. On that test, under the social studies section, the only state you had to find was....OHIO!
So, my 34 students who can find all fifty states, suddenly their knowledge means nothing. It’s not tested.
If my average student can find 44 states, which is roughly the case, that too means nothing. I need to focus on that one kid who thinks Hawaii is south of Kentucky and make sure he knows where Ohio is found. It doesn’t matter if he still believes Hawaii is south of Kentucky.
Ohio is the only car in the parking lot that counts.
Since passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 we know in the lower grades that testing has been limited to reading and math. So what you get are fewer cars in the elementary lot. Music is not tested and probably can’t be. So children spend less time on music. Art can’t be tested. No art necessary in second grade. Gym class? You could test for physical fitness but Americans aren’t ready for that. So schools cut back on physical education.
Just what we need.
Even science can be cut if necessary. It’s not covered by testing in the lower grades. That means you can cut time spent on plant growth and focus on math instead.
If you’re a third grade teacher in Ohio, under proposed new laws, your pay and job security will soon depend on test results. And if you have thirty students, and they all get one more question right in math, you’re going to get a bonus, even if they still believe the earth is flat, that dinosaurs roam the earth in 2012, and the moon is made of cheese.
In my class we used to read a fourteen page assignment on George Washington, one I created on my own, and spent a day-and-a-half discussing his life and leadership during the American Revolution. I liked to focus on what made him a great leader; but you can’t test for an understanding of leadership. I also liked to focus on a list of 110 rules of behavior he memorized when he was a youth. I liked to point out that he wanted to make himself a better person. Then I asked students, for homework, to draw up a list of their own rules to follow. Unfortunately, you can’t measure self-improvement with a standardized test. So there’s no “sense” talking to teens about how to be better people.
No car in that parking lot.
MOST OF WHAT MAKES EDUCATION MEANINGFUL can never be measured in the end. In the school where I taught we had an outstanding band director. Mr. Maegly had middle school kids sounding like high school bands and dozens of his charges went on to careers in music. And for what? The loudest-talking “experts” in education today insist that teachers in every subject will have to be measured if we want to “fix” America's schools. What we’re going to have in the end is an I.R.S. model in education. We’re going to bog down an entire system in abstruse rules and complex codification and giant piles of paperwork. We’re going to kill the best teaching and focus on a few simple tests.
What are we going to have in the end, what do we gain for all the billions spent? We’re going to get more cars in the parking lot.
What we actually want, of course, are better drivers. Standardized tests don’t measure learning any more than your ability to pass a license test at sixteen guarantees ten years later that you won’t tailgate the car in front of you, or forget to put on your seatbelt, or flip your left turn signal at the appropriate time.
It doesn’t mean, twenty years later, that you won’t drive drunk.
It’s just a test of the basics. It doesn’t prove for one moment that once you get behind the wheel you will really know how to drive.