THE BLOG
10/02/2012 05:04 pm ET | Updated Dec 02, 2012

Educating for Democracy: A Modest Proposal for Standardized Tests

The controversy over standardized testing was given new focus by the recent Chicago teachers strike. One of their major objections was to having the Chicago Board of Education use these tests heavily to determine teacher competence. This issue prompts me to suggest a "modest" proposal that might go far towards improving education in the public schools.

However, unlike Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal that suggests selling one-year-old children for food in impoverished Ireland in the eighteenth century, mine is far less drastic.

It seems that in the case of standardized testing, regardless of the many objections, denunciations and studies showing that they are not helpful in improving student learning, they are being used with greater frequency in determining not only student progress but whether someone is a "good teacher" or "bad teacher." This, despite evidence that not only has learning not been improving in the United States according to international standards, but, as the use of standardized tests has increased, America's standing in comparison to other countries continues to decline despite a program that was supposed to improve American students' performance.

Standardized tests have been a part of American education since the mid-1800s. Their use skyrocketed after 2002's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandated annual testing in all 50 states. U.S. students slipped from 18th in the world in math in 2000 to 31st place in 2009, with a similar decline in science and no change in reading. Failures in the education system have been blamed on rising poverty levels, teacher quality, tenure policies, and increasingly on the pervasive use of standardized tests.

One of the principal reasons for standardized testing is to make teachers "accountable" for their students' performance. As one article dealing with the issue concluded in responding to the question: "Don't standardized tests provide accountability?"

No. Tests that measure as little and as poorly as multiple-choice tests cannot provide genuine accountability. Pressure to teach to the test distorts and narrows education. Instead of being accountable to parents, community, teachers and students, schools become "accountable" to a completely unregulated testing industry.


A September 26, 2012 interview on PBS News Hour of the 2012 "Teacher of the Year," Rebecca Mieliwocki, seemed to me to reflect the opinions of many teachers I have interviewed over the past few years in her evaluation of the use of standardized tests:

"It would be like going to the doctor and having your temperature taken, and the temperature telling us everything we need to know about you. It doesn't. It gives us one number on one day, and it tells us your health and wellness at that one moment. But it's not really that useful a piece of information taken in isolation."


There is evidence of a "pushback" on standardized testing from parents and students as well as teachers as reported in a Reuters article last June:

A backlash against high-stakes standardized testing is sweeping through U.S. school districts as parents, teachers, and administrators protest that the exams are unfair, unreliable and unnecessarily punitive -- and even some longtime advocates of testing call for changes.

The objections come even as federal and state authorities pour hundreds of millions of dollars into developing new tests, including some for children as young as five.

In a growing number of states, scores on standardized tests weigh heavily in determining whether an eight-year-old advances to the next grade with her classmates; whether a teen can get his high school diploma; which teachers keep their jobs; how much those teachers are paid; and even which public schools are shut down or turned over to private management.

Parents frustrated by the system say they're not against all standardized tests but resent the many hours their kids spend filling in multiple-choice bubbles and the wide-ranging consequence that poor scores carry. They say the testing regime piles stress on children and wastes classroom time. In elementary schools, they protest that a laser focus on the subjects tested, mostly math and reading, crowds out science, social studies and the arts. In high schools, they're fighting standardized exams that can determine a student's course grade in subjects from geometry to world history.


But still, there are arguments advanced supporting the practice that, specious as they may be to critics of standardized testing, seem to be controlling the agenda. The following point from the conservative Hoover Institute is an example:

"K-12 students who practice demonstrating their knowledge and skills on standardized tests throughout their school career become better prepared to meet future educational, occupational, and professional goals. They will be ready for the standardized tests assessing complex achievement that are used for admission to selective colleges and graduate and professional schools. In addition, K-12 students will be prepared for tests required for occupational licensing for trades as well as for intellectually demanding professions such as law and medicine. The American Board of Internal Medicine, for example, uses multiple-choice, standardized tests to assess a physician's judgment before he can be certified in an advanced medical specialty."


This point might be valid for students who go into such professions and trades, but what of the overwhelming majority who do not? And what evidence is there that students schooled on high-stakes testing perform any better on tests later in life than students who are not subjected to standardized tests? The latter students often attend private, elite institutions that do not rely as much as public schools on standardized testing in their curriculum.

"Private schools have traditionally used standardized tests as only one of many tools in their assessment kit bag. With their smaller school populations, private school assessment programs can probe more deeply and can use diagnostic tools not possible in public school settings. Let's face it: monolithic testing companies are a logical response to a monolithic educational system. Private schools with their boutique approach to education can afford to stick with their customized approach to student assessment."

If standardized tests are not precise enough for those students, why should they be for the rest?

In order to resolve this issue, and to guarantee a high-quality educational system, I would like to offer the following modest proposals:

1. Classes in any given school should be divided into "standardized" and "non-standardized" with teachers having at least one of each, but ideally half of both for their course load. This way the differences between student performance due to demographic and economic factors can be minimized and at least half of the classes would be unburdened with "test prep."

2. Since retention is a significant part of knowledge building, all students would be given a "post-test" when they return from summer vacation to see how much in skills and information has been effectively learned. This would also be a good way to determine whether the standardized test cohort performed better or worse than the group that did not take standardized tests.

3. The data collected can then be used to correlate those higher-performing students on these tests with their zip codes to determine where the "best schooling" was taking place.

4. True "school reformers" can then investigate the neighborhoods where these high performing students live who obviously have "great teachers" and "great parents" for them to succeed.

5. Using this data, a plan can then be launched to duplicate the neighborhood environment of the high-performing students and schools in the low-performing areas through:

a. Well-paying jobs for parents.
b. Safe, comfortable neighborhoods.
c. An abundance of cultural activities and easy access to public libraries, museums, zoos and other educationally enriching facilities.
d. Up-to-date schools in good repair with adequate budgets to supply school materials so that teachers don't have to make out-of-pocket purchases.
e. Abundant courses in the arts, music, well-stocked libraries and culturally and recreationally enriching extra-curricular activities.
f. Autonomy for teachers to develop their own approaches to teaching with ample opportunity for collaborative work with colleagues and support from administrators.
If my modest proposal were to be followed, I believe that student learning would improve throughout the country as reflected in the "post-summer" retention tests. More students would be "college-ready" when graduating from high school and the many social, economic and emotional challenges faced by under performing students would be addressed.

To modify a slogan by President Obama: "A world-class neighborhood producing world-class schools is the best anti-poverty program."