Saturday, February 18, 2012

Where in the World is Ohio: The Curse of the Standardized Test

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.

I’m not going to deny that a dozen still mix up Kansas and Nebraska. I’m not going to say that one boy still doesn't mark “Tennessee” as “Hawaii.”  I'm only going to say, if you’re a teacher you do the best you can.

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.


  1. I saw your post on the TFA facebook page. I will be a TFA'er next year, but not I guess I'm not exactly who you want to hear from. Although I'm not in the classroom yet, I'm not your average tfa-er (I'm already certified). I'm from Ohio too! None of that matters, though...I totally agree with you! Thanks for posting.

    How do you propose we help develop "better drivers" in those schools that consistently show they are unable to do so (it doesn't take a test to show that some schools aren't doing what they should). I don't believe tests are the answer, but I believe they were created with good intentions. How can we hold teachers and students accountable for the things that really matter so that education can be positive for all?

  2. Good questions and good luck to you in the classroom. Let me say, first, that the current testing programs don't hold students accountable in any way.

    So, I'd start with that, if we're going to continue to focus on standardized tests.

    In the long run, however, I think you will be a good or great teacher if you set your own very high standards for students, and by motivating them, as far as is within your power, convince them to aim for high standards, themselves.

    It is my settled belief that all our best teachers already set high standards, much higher than are set with simple tests. If I had a magic wand, I'd get rid of more teachers, who don't; but I'd also make sure that our bureaucrats got out of the way of our good teachers.

  3. This comment was posted on my Facebook feed by Catrina Couch Kolshorn:

    I completely agree, John. Teachers should be able to share a broader base of knowledge than what is targeted for a minimized, standardized test; and they should have the freedom to do so. Ohio is certainly not the only car in the parking lot. Where is the joy, sense of adventure, thirst for knowledge, passion and incentive in that? -- for either teacher or student? Since 'No Child Left Behind' was passed, I have not read or heard of any good argument in favor of its process or results. When I look back on my multiple-subject, public education which DID include Art, PE, Science, Reading and Math (among some other great classes) - all of which I loved - I feel it provided me with a great foundation for life. Not only can I identify Ohio, but I WANT to identify all other 49 states and share that desire for knowledge/love of learning with my children. It's a big, wide world out there; if we limit what we think children 'should' learn, don't we then limit what they might 'want' to learn or what their full potential might be? Are we then saying to them, "The minimum is enough?". Since when?! Human beings are individuals, not pieces of machinery on an assembly line and the base minimum just isn't going to cut it. No, Ohio is NOT the only car in the parking lot... and I find it sad that some narrow-minded perspective thought so in the first place, then burdened the rest of us with the idea. Life and education are so much more than that.

  4. Absolutely agree. But there's even greater insanity to standardized testing. That's because evidence has been with us for a long time that a heavier emphasis on raising test scores is counterproductive.

    Higher scores don't increase a child's chance for adult success.

    Higher scores also doesn't improve our global competitiveness.

    Insane? Absolutely. Here are the facts: