Let’s continue the argument in favor of a more progressive understanding of schooling.  In the last post, we discussed an analogy to schooling: giving and receiving directions.  The traditionalist understanding of education is like a mere list of directions to students, directions in an area students are unfamiliar with and to somewhere they have no desire to go.  A more progressive schooling would be sure students were familiar with the area first, then allow them to practice getting there.  When we understand schooling in this “progressive” way, the need for repeated testing falls apart like toilet paper in a rain storm.  You can still use it if you want, but it won’t have the effect you’re after, and you’re likely to make a mess in the process.

Let’s stick with the directions analogy for a minute: if our goal is to help students get from point A to point B, a standardized test is the equivalent of making students write out a list of the directions they have heard.  It only provides a way to check if they had memorized the list of directions.  It does not test whether or not they understood why they were going to point B in the first place, or whether or not they could actually get there in real life.

This is a meaningless game.  Students recognize that.  Instead of providing an evaluation of how much students are learning, repeated standardized tests merely test to see how many students in any given school are willing to compete in the game.  This is why test scores are so unshakeably tied to race and class.  When schooling conditions are pleasant and the meaningless school game seems to be a game that must be played, a higher proportion of students will work to master the lists of information provided.  They will try to perform well on the regurgitative tests.  When schooling in unpleasant and there is less family and peer pressure to do well at the school game, a higher proportion of students will not bother.

Standardized tests promise to provide a dipstick measurement of student learning.  What they provide instead is a measure of cultural compliance.

What would truly provide a check of student learning would be a system in which students are allowed to drive from point A to point B.  Can they navigate the difficulties of real life conditions to perform at an important adult skill?  Do they have the imagination, knowledge, and experience to get there?  There are two main reasons why this kind of authentic testing is not attractive to those who shout for increased testing and “accountability.”  First, these kinds of tests would cost a great deal of money.  Second, these tests would force schools to loosen their coercive grip on young people.  In short, these kinds of authentic tests would disrupt two of the important functions of institutional schooling.  They would release students from the economically designed control offered by our current school model.

Let’s see how it would work in practice:  To see if students really had mastered an authentic skill, such as driving cross town from point A to point B, a teacher would need to spend time with each individual student.  The teacher would need to help the student with some maps and written directions.  The teacher would have to gauge when each student was ready to move to the next step in the learning process.  Finally, the student would have to be allowed to authentically test her skills.  She would have to get from point A to point B, first with some teacher guidance, then finally on her own.  Such a test would provide real information about the intelligence, knowledge, imagination, and skills of students.  It would keep teachers accountable for the authentic learning of their students.

But imagine the financial price.  In essence, each student would need her own adult teacher.  Instead of the current model that provides one salaried adult teacher for twenty to thirty kids, this model would multiply that salary cost by at least twenty times.

Second, this kind of testing would shatter the implicit coercive wall of schools.  It would force schools to abdicate their implicit role as containment for the majority of young people during the traditional work day.  If schools were to attempt to give students an authentic education, one that consisted of helping them master the skills and knowledge that they will need as adults in our society, they would have to allow students to try out those ideas outside of the institution.  Young people would no longer be (more or less) reliably contained and separated from adult society.  They could engage in the delinquency that has been such a feared part of youth for centuries.

If the goal is to force schools, teachers, and administrators to be accountable for student learning, standardized tests are only a convenient figleaf.  They do not check to see if students are actually mastering any intellectual or practical skills and knowledge.  They only check to see how willing they are to play the game of memorizing lists of seemingly haphazard information.  Teachers and schools can pack such lists of information into more appealing forms.  They can increase material incentives for students to play the testing game.  They can limit the functions of their school to drill students in the peculiar skills necessary to master this meaningless game.  But they do not have to provide any authentic education.

Such tests and testing regimes remove any accountability from teachers and schools.  They allow teachers and schools to spend their time on the testing game itself instead of on helping students master real adult challenges.

Consider the difference in the questions teachers and schools face when they are faced with a standardized testing regime, as opposed to when they are trying to help students authentically master ideas:

Teacher’s questions   for himself in testing regime: Teacher’s questions   for himself in authentic education:
Will the student remember what I told her about the plot   of Hamlet? How can I help students understand Hamlet’s existential   dilemma?
What tricks can I show students to help them get a good   score on a reading-comprehension question? Can students read a voter-information bulletin?
What do they need to know for the test about the   Pythagorean theorem? Do my students understand the relationship between the   sides of right triangles?
How can I entice them to try their hardest on the test so   that I do not get my salary docked? Can they function as competent, caring, informed adults?


Which column puts more pressure on teachers?  Which column has more difficult questions?  Which column reflects a teacher who puts more effort into true education for students?

The answer is obvious: testing merely elevates the meaningless game of random information repetition into the only measure of education.  It gives students and teachers a free pass to sidestep the difficult work of real education.  It gives students no reason to play along.  And it forces schools and school districts to enforce the vision of education that is least productive.  It pushes those districts to increase the coercive and regurgitative nature of institutional schooling, when those are the factors that had pushed students to evade the meaningless game of standardized testing in the first place.

In other words, an educational regime that emphasizes standardized testing will discourage all the elements of education itself.  It decreases teacher responsibility, removes local control of schooling decisions, and restricts students from developing their skills as the intelligent citizens necessary to a democracy.


FURTHER READING: Theodore Sizer, Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School (Mariner, 2004); John Holt, How Children Learn (1969).

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  1. PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION IIb: Bumps in the Road « I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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