Excellent list of reasons to hate standardized, high-stakes testing

This WashPo column by Marion Brady ("veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author") enumerates reason after reason to oppose standardized testing, the major educational technique in use in much of the world today. It's such a good (and depressing) list that it's hard not to quote it in its entirety:

Opposition to the present orgy of testing is now wrongly interpreted as unwillingness to be held accountable.

For those who buy that fiction, a list of some of the real reasons for educator opposition may be helpful.

Teachers (at least the ones the public should hope their taxes are supporting) oppose the tests because they focus so narrowly on reading and math that the young are learning to hate reading, math, and school; because they measure only “low level” thinking processes; because they put the wrong people — test manufacturers — in charge of American education; because they allow pass-fail rates to be manipulated by officials for political purposes; because test items simplify and trivialize learning.

Teachers oppose the tests because they provide minimal to no useful feedback; are keyed to a deeply flawed curriculum adopted in 1893; lead to neglect of physical conditioning, music, art, and other, non-verbal ways of learning; unfairly advantage those who can afford test prep; hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring; penalize test-takers who think in non-standard ways.

Teachers oppose the tests because they radically limit their ability to adapt to learner differences; encourage use of threats, bribes, and other extrinsic motivators; wrongly assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known; emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance; create unreasonable pressures to cheat.

The complete list of problems with high-stakes standardized tests (via Beth Pratt)


  1. I don’t disagree that standardized testing is a bad thing, but it is a nasty solution for a nasty system.  There are a pile of issues that build up in public education that lead to the crap we have.  You can point fingers in a lot of directions, but I think the two biggest problem are unions, and local financing of schools.

    Unions are an issue because they have the teachers interest at heart.  Those interests, while often overlapping with student interests, are different.  Teachers unions REALLY don’t want any sort of system where you can hire and fire teachers at will.  Instead, what you get is a system where so long as someone follows the rules, regardless if they are incompetent or not, you can’t fire them once they are tenured for incompetence.  

    This system sucks.  

    It means that when you want to try and weed out incompetence,  you have to do it with blunt instruments, like standardized testing tied to control of the school district. Good teachers are capped at the knees in terms of creativity because the system of rules works both ways.  It isn’t just the fact that bad teachers can’t be fired, it is the stupid shit we try and do to get around that fact that hurts kids.  Standardized testing is one of those things.

    The other HUGE problem is local financing of schools.  It splits the world into haves and have nots in a way that even an entirely a purely Rand wet dream of private education system would struggle to match.  It is literally the worst of both worlds.  Rich people still send their kids to private schools out of pocket and less rich (but still well off) people move to rich districts where the schools get vastly more funding.  You not only sap the diversity of students, but you also take the money along for the ride.  It is insane.

    If I had my choice, we would copy the Swedish system.  Every students gets the same amount of cash.  That cash follows the students.  You can do either a charter school with the cash or a public school.  I might modify it so that you still split the cash pile at a state level instead of a federal level to account for cost of living differences (Massachusetts costs more than Alabama).  I still might be up for some standardized testing, but purely as a diagnostic tool that is published to the public.  It wouldn’t solve everything, but it would be a start.

    1. If only we could get rid of unions all our problems would be solved.  But then I look at the counter-examples. The administrators of the too-big-to-fail banks were completely non-unionized. How we doing weeding them out?

      The problem is poverty, as you seem to acknowledge with the discussion of haves and have-nots. Why not focus on that?

      1. Well there is a whole lot more to poverty then simply lack of money…

        And in respect to the bankers, I don’t have a solution.  I see the problem as a complete disconnect from the people who work at the lower levels and their customers…much in the same way that politicians seem completely disconnected from the country they try and run.  Ironically it seems the larger companies and government become, the better they have become at insulating themselves from the common folk…

    2. And that’s why the states without teachers unions have the best educational achievement.  States like Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia are justly famous for their school performance.  Thank goodness they don’t have any teachers unions there to get in the way of their excellent education!

    3. “Teachers unions REALLY don’t want any sort of system where you can hire and fire teachers at will.  Instead, what you get is a system where so long as someone follows the rules, regardless if they are incompetent or not, you can’t fire them once they are tenured for incompetence. ”

      That is a complete lie. You can fire any teacher at anytime as long as you follow due process. People who cry this argument are just too lazy to do that. The union protects its members by making sure that due process is preserved, something that every worker, even bad ones, have a right to.

    4. Moderator note: Unless I’ve missed some invisible pixels, this is not a thread about teacher’s unions.

      1. You must have missed some pixels then.  The post is about how standardized testing, which sucks, is a result of our current systems desperate attempt to get around a screwed up system.  Why do we have various federal and state mandated tests?  You have them because everyone has been tied down with rules that more or less prevent them from taking any sort of action to change anything unless you have solid proof a district is failing.  The only allowable way to gather said proof these days is standardized testing.  Hence, you get standardized testing.

        You might disagree with me, but the only thing off top was bitching and moaning and about local funding mean that you have deeply impoverished school systems.  Sure, that was off top topic.  Saying that our current system all but demands standardized testing, on topic.

    5. The problem is local funding of schools? I completely disagree. Consider California, where prop 13 effectively did away with local funding of schools. Consequently school districts rely on the central government for funding, and the central government controls everything. It’s a completely disaster. The school system has gone from the best in the country, to one of the worst. Teachers can’t so much as buy a text book without approval from the politburo in Sacramento. The needs of the local community are irrelevant to the system.

    6. Deleted content of my post after I saw the crack about “invisible pixels.” Doing my part to keep it on topic.

    7. see though, the opposite of all these union rules is nepotism. a new school administrator comes in, fires the teachers, and installs their friends. this used to happen in the past before teachers’ unions.

      there’s nothing wrong with teachers collectively bargaining for their rights as employees. just because they teach school does not mean they should have no rights.

  2. Too bad the retired teacher didn’t reveal what would replace test as a method of assessment, and why reading and math shouldn’t be rooted as core curriculum… 

    Do you go about your life not able to do simple elementary math? Work out a discount, breakdown what’s in a bill, understand your mortgage repayments, interest on your savings/loans, calculate the hypotenuse, convert metric to imperial?

    1. To be fair, the vast majority of day-to-day math is simple arithmetic. Perhaps a bit of trig comes in every now and then because triangles are so versatile. Advanced math is meant to prepare students for technical jobs in science and engineering. To most people, who aren’t scientists or engineers, being able to take a derivative, integrate, or find an Eigenvector is totally worthless information.

      All of which is not to say that we shouldn’t expose students to this information, otherwise how will the ones who ARE going to be scientists and engineers even find out it exists. But let’s not elevate those skills to an unrealistic level.

      1. Being able to take a derivative is useless to common people? People talk about increasing costs all the time. Taking a derivative lets you know how fast things are increasing. I work with Chinese and Indian people and they are amazed that someone can graduate from high school in the US without knowing basic calculus.

        1. As someone with school in engineering I’d say knowing how to compute integrals and derivatives is not something you come across in an everyday setting.

          Outside of people who compute those numbers for a living, average people don’t sit down and create charts and spreadsheets showing their percent rate increase in spending year over year.  It does me little good to know that 10 years ago I was paying $2.50 for a gallon of milk and now I’m paying $3.50…the problem/situation there is I’m still going to be paying it.

          Honestly I think it would benefit non-science related peoples everyday math ability if schools focused on things like percentages and interest calculations.  (I realize once you venture into things like compound interest you end up in Calculus, but most of it can be explained using basic/straightforward equations.)

        2. I work with Chinese and Indian people and they are amazed that someone can graduate from high school in the US without knowing basic calculus.

          And yet, they’re working in the US, not in India or China. Maybe knowing calculus isn’t the cornerstone of a healthy society.

          1. I worked for five years in Canada despite being from the US. It was all about getting the right job at the right time, which just so happened to be in another country. So I moved there. Much the same is true for people from other countries who work in the US. They aren’t necessarily here because they think it’s a better society than that of their home country.

        3. As an Indian…

          The truth is, our schools cram you full of stuff and send you out into the world. We’ve got all those things you’re debating here in one form or another.

          High stakes testing: there are two tests you take, one in the 10th and one in the 12th grade levels. They’re collectively called the “board exams”, since they’re administered by the board to which your school is affiliated. This is usually one of the state boards of education, or the central board, though there are a few other privately run ones.

          The first test, the 10th grade one, is really high-stakes; it determines which specialization you get into in the next couple of  years, which in turn decides which course you can take in university. For example, if you took the package I took in the “senior school” level – mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science – you get to do science and engineering in college. If you took biology instead of CS, that opens up medical and biotech.

          The second test determines whether you get into the top colleges, or those at lower rungs. But not really. There are university admission tests you’ve got to take too, since kids come in from different boards, which have widely different standards for the 12th grade exam. Which means that in that one year, as you pass out of school, you take maybe a dozen exams, in _all_ subjects, in the hope of getting into at least one “good institution” eventually.

          The system is high-stakes and high-pressure. These tests literally determine the course of your life. The way that it’s been dealt with over the years is, the tests become more and more routine; the questions are standardized, the answers are standardized. This is more true of the state boards than the centre, but it’s still true everywhere. It’s possible – indeed, I think it happens to a majority of those who are successful in these tests – to cram the entire set of possible questions into your head before the exam, write the test, and forget about it the next day. The boards and schools are under constant pressure to show high percentages – otherwise nobody would put their kids into these places. So they dumb down the exam, by taking the questions only from an official question bank. In some places, it becomes so ridiculous that even the numbers are the same from year to year.

          In the government-run schools, and also in the more for-profit private schools, the norm is for teachers to be lazy, and just teach to the test. They just enter class and start dictating notes. The class tests are directly from these notes. If you ever deviate from what the teacher dictated, you’re punished. There are exceptional teachers, who are really good, but this is often the rule. The better run schools try to avoid this, but in the “exam years” – the 10th and 12th – they can’t avoid it either.

          The people you see in the west, the hard-working, brilliant Chinese or Indian engineers who can spout differential equations, are the cream of the cream, maybe the 99th percentile, or so. They’re the ones who were bored by the exam, and spent time on harder problems – probably encouraged by the exceptional good teacher. They’re not really representative of their peers.

          I see the other 99%. The ones who come out scoring high, and still don’t know basic mathematics, because they were trained to parrot the same answers to the same questions. Yesterday, I was interviewing fresh graduates for my company. Not to blame the kids, but they’re usually pretty sure of the definitions of anything, and if you ask a question, they’ll come back with a canned answer. But there’s no understanding – you scratch the surface, and it’s just as good as if you asked Siri; they know how to say “an object is an instance of a class”, but they don’t really know what “instance” and “class” really are. That was never necessary for the test.

          India’s trying to change this system, but we’re ending up with a weird alternate system which hog-ties the good teaches, and gives scores to the kids for all the trivial things they do in class – this one giggled, so 10 points from Gryffindor. They call this “Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation”, where every single class test is practically board-administered and high-stakes.

          Short version: The very worst thing you could ever do is to copy the Indian education system, or hold it to be a model to emulate!

          1. I’d be happy if it lead to people understanding how polls worked. Or that 1 is not a statistically significant sample size. Statistics is far more common in everyday life than calculus is.

          2. I’d be happy if it lead to people understanding how polls worked.

            I’d be happy if people understood that polls are meaningless. Why should anyone care how many of their neighbors approve of Obama this week?

    2. All of the math I regularly use I learned by the sixth grade. I am much more concerned with language skills: when you don’t have those you cannot communicate clearly or learn much of anything easily. Without good language skills reading becomes a chore, and if you don’t read you are very likely to be ignorant and at the mercy of popular media. And of course our science education is beyond a shambles, but I suspect that virtually anybody who reads can quickly come up to speed on a reasonable amount of science. That is if you are not an ignorance-embracer like the idiotic creationists. If you are, all bets are off.

      1. It’s become somewhat fashionable for people to question whether math should even be part of the curriculum. After all, it’s hard, it keeps people from graduating, and -I- never use it!

        Trouble is, that’s where all the jobs are. Math is a big part of what divides the skilled from the unskilled.

        I propose an experiment: track down one of your friends who decided to go back to school. Any subject. Ask them whether the hardest part of getting back in was a lack of background in math.

        1. I don’t agree. I am a programmer and have had a long career in IT, and there is virtually no math involved. And there are toms of jobs in computers, as everybody knows. That being said I would never suggest removing math from the curriculum, certainly not the basics.

          As for someone going back to school, I can well believe that among the hardest things to recover would be the math. But a lot of that would be due to the fact that the school is requiring you to take levels of math that again, you don’t need. But sure, if you are returning to college to become an engineer, you would probably want to do some remedial math work ahead of time.

          1. You never use linked lists, trees, sort algorithms, boolean logic, or encryption when programming? Most of computer science is strongly related to combinatorics (or number theory). 
            Admittedly, you probably haven’t done a lot with plane geometry or trig. (This is due to 100+ year out of date curriculum standards.)

          2. This is just flat not true.  You can’t do anything in programming without maths.  (Unless your programming somehow doesn’t involve data storage, trees, sorting, boolean logic, 2-d graphics, 3-d graphics, bit manipulation…)

            What you mean is that the maths you know is so completely integrated into your life that you don’t notice that it is mathematics.  But it still is.

            The biggest problem with school maths is that the vast majority of citizens never find out what ‘maths’ means, or what’s involved in it.  Leaving school thinking ‘Mathematics’ means arithmetic is as mind-bogglingly narrow as leaving school thinking ‘History’ means the study of the past events in St. Lois betweeen 1764 and 1828.  But a lot more common.

        2. Trouble is, that’s where all the jobs are. Math is a big part of what divides the skilled from the unskilled.

          Really?  Outside of math specific occupations, like statistics I rarely every see a job posting asking for a specific level of mathematical knowledge.  Positions for Mechanical Engineers rarely specify, needs to know complex differential equations and linear algebra, while they usually do specify a need to know how to work software packages like Pro-E.

          Personally I don’t think college actually prepares you to enter the workforce.  They do a decent to great job of laying down the foundation, but there is still a lot to learn once you leave school.

          1. If you think that, then you will not be able to achieve in any form of engineering – and mechanical is probably the easiest. You must understand engineering concepts to do even the most basic engineering design, or else rely on over-engineering parts simply because you don’t know any better.

            The concepts are important, and the concepts are deeply reliant on a strong grasp of mathematics.

      2. The problem is that understanding science needs math, and no amount of studying language skills is going to get over this. Yes, even for biology (and I say this as a biologist). Part of the issue of creationists is that they (along with much of the rest of the saner population) think evolution is just the qualitative theories of Darwin and his Victorian colleagues and don’t realize that evolutionary biology has become quite mathematical since. Part of the reason why there aren’t many relativity-deniers (although I know there are a few) is that few people feel arrogant enough to argue with the mathematical framework of physics. If only they knew that biology also has a strong mathematical framework.

        1. Replying to Mr. Badger and knappa here – I stopped being interested in math after algebra, so that’s about my limit and I don’t even use that in my job, just arithmetic.  And I am more up to date on scientific issues than anyone I know who isn’t a specialist in something. I will accept that practicing biology may require deep math skills these days, but being familiar with it does not. And of all the things knappa mentioned (sorting, linked lists, etc.) only encryption requires deep math, and at a level beyond human ability – that’s why encryption works! I call a function and the computer calculates something that a team of mathematicians couldn’t do by hand in ten thousand years.

          But I still know enough math to see through a lot of statistical lies, decide for myself whether evolution is reasonable, and call bullshit on the Drake equation for decades because I knew they had no basis for several of the variables they were using.

  3. “Teachers oppose the tests because they radically limit their ability to adapt to learner differences; encourage use of threats, bribes, and other extrinsic motivators; wrongly assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known; emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance; create unreasonable pressures to cheat.”

    This is where I call shenanigans. 

    The vast majority of the K-12 curriculum has been set in stone for decades. Some of it for over a century. Yes, we do already know what the current cohort of kids need to learn by age 18. And this argument is yet another little escape clause to avoid accountability if they don’t know learn it. 

    1. What they really need to learn are critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, certain social skills, and how to develop and test hypotheses in daily life. What the educational system teaches is often at odds with that.

      For example, it teaches some kids how to bully, and who they can get away with beating up. It teaches other kids that anytime they stand up for themselves, or for anyone else, they will get beaten down. It leaves many kids with ptsd. It teaches neurotypical kids how to communicate with each other, it teaches borderline-autistic kids to hate themselves, and it often fails to teach visibly-autistic kids. I wish it taught kids how to communicate with people who have different communication patterns, so that neurotypical kids would know how to communicate with autistic kids and vice-versa. I wish it didn’t enforce the demands for painful eye contact. It teaches lesbian, gay, bi and especially trans kids that they are abominations who should be bullied for who they are. Or it taught that, mainly by encouraging the bullies and discouraging any real discussion.

      Standardized tests can sometimes test problem-solving skills. But they can’t really test critical thinking skills or how to develop and test hypotheses.

      1. “What they really need to learn are critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, certain social skills, and how to develop and test hypotheses in daily life. What the educational system teaches is often at odds with that.”

        And every school claims to teach these things, and you have to take their word for it, since there is no reliable way to find out for yourself. 

        In the mean time, they use this kind of talk to excuse utter failure to teach their students enough math that they can manage their own finances and not fall into credit traps, enough basic knowledge in science not to fall for the common conjobs out there, et cetera.

        Not to mention that there is no shortage of teachers who themselves are not exactly well endowed with critical thinking skills, and equate them with regurgitating platitudes (as opposed to rote knowlege, which means regurgitating facts.)

        1. And every school claims to teach these things, and you have to take their word for it, since there is no reliable way to find out for yourself.

          There is a way to verify if schools and individual teachers are truly teaching students critical thinking, problem solving, social skills, etc.  They are called portfolios, and they show the changes in students over years if schools keep them long term.  The reason they are not commonly used is that they require the same skills to interpret.  You have to have creative teachers and problem solving administrators looking at them, and that takes work.  Merely looking at a score on a standardized test and saying “oooh that’s a big number.  She must be smart!” is much easier and simpler to process in bulk.  With a protfolio you have to get to know a human, and look for where they started and where they ended and the path they took to get from A to B.  A student who starts with little or no skills and can then make a simple project has done much more learning than a gifted student who half-asses but does something huge.

          These ideas have been around for decades.  Check out Project Zero from Harvard Graduate School of Education, or Google “Making Thinking Visible”.  There are hundreds of schools around the country that are making a difference but you have to get past “academic rigor is demonstrated by test scores” mindsets to find them.

      2. “What they really need to learn are critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, certain social skills, and how to develop and test hypotheses in daily life. What the educational system teaches is often at odds with that.”

        no, no, no, what they need to learn are bowhunting skills, nunchuck skills, computer hacking skills…

      3.  I have a by now 15 year old story from my high school years. It was told to me and a few other students by our debate coach (also an English teacher at the school) about a meeting he’d been to. The subject of critical thinking came up, and he expressed the opinion that we needed to teach kids how to think for themselves rather than just tell them what to think.

        He says that the other teachers all just stared at him until one of them finally said, “We don’t want kids to think for themselves. They might think the wrong things.”

  4. I’m not a fan of standardized testing as a sign of anything…however we were subjected to this sort of thing years ago when I was growing up and we all passed through it swimmingly while learning any number of things.

    I think that the real problem with education these days is that administrators at the top take so much money that teachers need to buy their own classroom supplies and can no longer teach in a truly fun and innovative way.

    1.  Years ago we all took some tests, now and then, yes. The difference is that now, EVERYTHING depends on the results of those tests. Students don’t score high enough on the tests? Your school’s budget gets cut by double-digit percentages. Students scored okay, but not better than last year? Budget cuts.  You’ve got an award-winning after-school science program, amazing music programs, but two percent too many of your students didn’t pick the right thing on a multiple-choice test? Everything that isn’t math classes gets its budget eliminated.

      Tests to determine which kids need more work on which subjects are fine. Tests, used as an excuse to fire teachers, kill programs, and close schools… not so fine.

  5. “Too bad the retired teacher didn’t reveal what would replace test as a method of assessment, and why reading and math shouldn’t be rooted as core curriculum..”

    Individual assessment? It doesn’t give you a clean pseudoscientific number by which to rank kids and teachers, and to allow politicians to pretend they are on top of the ‘education problem.’

    But by the end of the year the teacher knows darn well who can do what. S/he sees them doing the problems in class, talks to them about the material, hears them read aloud, etc.. You know who can read or add (or whatever) bc you are right there seeing them do it.

    Test-taking is its own set of skills. That’s what they teach at places like Sylvan. Some kids understand the concepts but can’t write a test to save their lives. Sometimes bc of anxiety. OTOH some kids rock test-taking, and can game a test without really understanding the concepts.

    Sorry. That got long and rambley.

    1. I totally agree with the idea that test taking is a skill in itself. 

      In my electrical engineering undergrad circuits 3 class the professor taught from the book, worked problems, all the basics…  Occasionally we’d touch on theory and stuff, but a lot of it was formulas, math, memorization, ect..  But his tests were works of art.  No calculators allowed, all the numbers had been reduced to elementary school levels, so 1×2 or 5+5 (only in engineering terms…)  Fellow classmates that I watched ace earlier classes were struggling because it wasn’t just about memorize and repeat, it was about thinking and applying.  His teaching ability wasn’t the best, but I thought his tests were very good at real world teaching.

  6. School costs more now because schools are tasked now with more than they used to be. There are more ELL students. There are more special needs students. They cost more money. 

    The test used to be for teachers to use–to see where their students were. Now the test is used to measure teachers, a use the test is not designed to do; this narrows the curriculum because teachers are rated on the scores of their students; I know, it’s ridiculous.

    We can predict test scores of students by their zip codes. This should not be the case, but it is. Why? Because generational poverty stifles kids. It is these low SES kids who score low on the test. Why? Generational poverty. Period.

    Teachers are not the problem. Unions are not the problem. Poverty is the problem.

    Look at the NAEP; our affluent kids are #1 on Earth. Our impoverished kids? Nope.

    Poverty is our problem. It’s obvious and has been since we started measuring this stuff; since the Coleman Report in the 60’s we’ve known poverty and out-of-school factors account for the majority of factors impacting a child’s ability to learn and do well in school.

    Help me help some kids here: http://www.tsoth.org

    1. Been teaching under an NSF fellowship for 3 years, and 100% this. There is not an education crisis in America, there is a poverty crisis in America.

      NCLB may have been a mixed bag, but it has been an enormous success in revealing just how little this country is doing for its lower classes. Truth is, if we didn’t have these tests, the unwanted in our society would just be brushed under the rug.

    2. Poverty is our problem. It’s obvious and has been since we started measuring this stuff; since the Coleman Report in the 60’s we’ve known poverty and out-of-school factors account for the majority of factors impacting a child’s ability to learn and do well in school.

      Do you want to expand on those out-of-school factors.  Because I think those have just as much to do with a child’s learning ability as being poor does.  (Obviously when parents have to work, and can’t spend time with their children helping them because of money issues that is a poverty problem.  But when parents simply don’t spend time helping their children that’s another problem….)

      1. Out of school factors? Their life at home–not at school.

        Poverty, as it’s used in sociological circles like this one having to do with education, is not simply a measure of wealth; SES, or socioeconomic status is what we are talking about when we use the term ‘poverty’ to describe our most under-served families.

        They include income, housing, health (access as well as current health of individuals), education level of parents, among other things.

        Some of the health issues stem from lead, lack of access to decent food (no stores, no car, but tons of fast food nearby), bad teeth, stress induced sickness, PTSD, and myriad other issues that have physical ramifications.

        Being poor ain’t good. It shortens your life as well as your potential. And it’s more than just not having enough money.

        You can blame low SES folks for being lazy, but that would be inaccurate. 

        Either we as a nation choose to eliminate poverty (which is economically feasible) or we choose not to.

        It comes down to a choice.

    3. Except that saying the solution to problems with schools is to end poverty is like saying that the solution to problems with prisons is to end crime. There will always be poverty, just as there will always be crime. “Root causes” notwithstanding, you’ll never solve any problem if you think you first have to solve intractable ones.

      As for generational poverty, statistics show that the solution exists, but it’s embarrassingly banal: finish high school, get a job (any job), don’t commit crimes or do drugs, get married and stay married, and only then have kids. Anyone who does those things reduces their chances of staying in poverty by a huge amount.

      1. They’re intractable due to attitudes like yours. They are solvable. They cost money–money rich people would rather not part with.


        1. Where has poverty ever been eliminated by taking money from “rich people”? Or eliminated, period? In the US we’ve spent trillions on the “War on Poverty.” How many trillions more before we win?

          1. In Scandinavia there is less disparity and better outcomes for all.

            They achieve this through a progressive tax code and socialism (read: sharing).

            You don’t care about the poor, like too many of us. That’s why we have the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world.


  7. I grew up in Iowa, which meant I took the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) twice a year, from grade 4 through 12. There were some advantages to this. One, I learned how to take tests under a deadline. Two, I learned how to hate tests, under a deadline. I did well, scoring 99’s on everything except English. So, it wasn’t a sense of failure – it was a sense of uselessness. 

    There were exceptions. I liked weekly quizzes. They helped reinforce what I just learned. I also like essay questions. Then I could extemporize; demonstrate that I actually had acquired the knowledge – enough so to improvise. Of course, this would add a lot of work for the teachers; tis harder to read an essay than to feed the results to a computer (or back then a grading template). 

    So, what is a better alternative? Perhaps: “Goodbye Mr. Chips?” In that story, the protagonist is a teacher who is paid enough in a culture where teachers are respected. This was before the culture of the cutthroat entrepreneur. More Woz than Jobs.

    1. Mr. Chips was teaching at an elite private boarding school.  His kids would have tested through the roof, if they had had standardized testing back then, but not because Mr. Chips was such an awesome teacher (though he was).  They would score high because they came from some of the richest families in England, had all the advantages in early childhood, probably had nannies who read to them, and were inculcated with good work values.  Those kids are gonna succeed no matter what.  

      We need schools that can help kids who don’t have most or any of these advantages.

      1. Instead of putting the fix on to schools, why don’t we ask society to deal with the incredible disparity that causes generational poverty in the first place?

        I mean, if the kids are stifled, physically, emotionally and psychologically, changing stuff inside the school does nothing. Zero. Zilch. It ignores those you are claiming to help.

        1. I totally agree with you that the underlying problem is poverty.  Clearly addressing child poverty, and all that goes with it, would do far more good than messing around with standardized testing or curriculum or most of the other proposed fixes.

          On the other hand, there are some districts in the United States that do a better job educating disadvantaged kids than others.  I hear that New York City schools, for example, do a far better job than Washington, DC schools at educating kids from impoverished backgrounds.  That, at least, is an apples-to-apples comparison, unlike comparing poor urban public schools with rich suburban private schools.

          Obviously underlying causes of low educational achievement need to be prioritized.  And schools account for only a small percentage of outcomes (something like 20% of the variation).  Still, if schools make any difference at all (and they do), we should want them performing to their potential.  We just shouldn’t expect schools to solve all the problems in this unequal society.

  8. Cyril Northcote Parkinson once wrote in “Parkinson’s Law”, that there are exactly two forms of testing/choosing a candidate for a position.

    (1) The Chinese Method – have the applicant solve a myriad of tests unrelated to the problems he will face later.

    (2) The British Method (old and new) – put the testee before a panel of judges and basically ask him who he is, meaning “who is your family” in the old system or “where did you go to school” in the new system.

    The British Method allegedly works much better.

    1. Every job interview that I’ve ever had has been a social chat. There’s never been any kind of job-related questioning.

      1. Really? You wouldn’t believe what interviewing for a computer programming job can be like. I’ve been asked to stand up at a whiteboard and write programming code many times. The current favorite request is to produce the Fibonacci sequence, something you will never need on the job. And worse, they ask you to do this without any reference materials. Heck, I wouldn’t ask a mechanic to fix my car without a manual, yet these bozo’s are asking me to program in one of the dozen languages I know without being able to Google a syntax question which will give me the answer in 5 seconds.

        Interestingly, Google itself is famous for asking off the wall riddles and brainteaser types of questions meant to reveal your general approach to problem solving and display creative thinking. Very enlightened.

        1.  Whenever I’m asked to do whiteboard coding, I end up with some kind of mutant hybrid of every C-like language. (“Is ‘string’ capitalized?…”) Doesn’t seem to bother the interviewers.

      2. We’ve been asking all our SQL hires if they know when to use a GROUP BY clause. Few have been able to answer this

      3. I worked somewhere where the final interview was followed by the “next seat” test. With offices around the world and much travel, senior partners recruited only people they could bare to sit next to on an eight-hour flight.

    2. How about method (3) – ask the applicant how he or she would go about solving a particular problem related to the position at hand?

      But, then again, I guess it really depends on the position, three use cases:

      Design: More of a depth first backward chaining (goal directed) kind of mindset. So, (3) is the best approach since it works within Human constraints. 

      Engineering: More of a breadth first forward chaining (feature directed) kind of mindset. So, (1) can gauge how broad the engineer’s toolset is. 

      Management: More of a use case template matching (pattern recognition). So, (2) helps identify who has grown up around successful people (old style), or going to Harvard (new style), exposes the candidate to a wider variety of  “success” templates.

      But (2) isn’t very fluid. When did Parkinson come up with his assessment? Was it before Moore’s law? There’s a hilarious essay of the negative valuation of startups that include an MBA. Template matching has negative consequence when the whole MO of startups is on “Disruption” or “Disintermediation” of existing templates. 

      Measured in tech epocs, I’d say that companies that represents the peak of each are:

        (2) IBM -> (1) Microsoft -> (3) Apple

      Hmmm, I wonder what (4) would be?

  9. Isn’t it funny that the commenters here who are in favour of the status quo are also the commenters who have shitty grammar…

  10. It appears that two separate issues are being conflated here: (i) whether standardized testing can be utilized to determine how well the students are learning, and (ii) how effective the standardized tests currently being used in the US are at achieving this goal.

    I think the answer to the first point is YES.  For instance, the British seem to do alright with their GCE/GCSE exams, which are examples of standardized tests. However, the impression that I get from talking to teachers and looking at some of the standardized tests used in the US is that they are often rudimentary multiple choice exams which evaluate the regurgitation of  memorized facts and formulae rather than the actual understanding and application of concepts.  As such, yes, I could see Brady having a point with the current tests, but there is no reason to believe that the tests cannot be improved to be more effective.

    Personally, I think part of the problem with American schools is that teaching at the primary and secondary levels is by no means a competitive profession.  It does not pay well, is not held in high esteem by most Americans, and consequently, most of the people working towards a Bachelor of Education degree are not exactly the cream of the crop in US colleges.  Accountability measures, flawed or otherwise, are not going to be successful unless teaching, as a profession, starts luring in the best and the brightest, or at least the bright and the reasonably competent.

    This is not to say that there aren’t any excellent teachers at the K-12 level — I’ve met several who are.  But, for the reasons mentioned above, I think they will continue to constitute only a small fraction of the teaching body, regardless of how effective standardized testing becomes in the US.

  11. Any adequate education that these teachers are proposing as an alternative should cover the ability to pass these standardized state graduation tests without difficulty.  These are not hard tests.

  12. Standardized tests are a tool. As with most others they can be used/abused/misused/misunderstood, they also can be quality tools or complete load of . The wrong tool can be applied to the wrong job etc. 

    Tossing out the tool because it is misused is probably not the answer. The much tougher job is: having them used appropriately and the results only be used for the limited scope for which they are accurate.

  13. Quite frankly when you end up with whole generations barely able to read, write and perform basic maths, I don’t think the main problem lies with the testing methodology or ideology.

    Whether or not tests are useful should not detract us from the fact that in many western countries the quality of basic education has continuously decreased since the 70’s.
    Yes, it’s not a uniquely american problem and doesn’t seem to correlate with the teaching methods, even though some seem to mitigate the decline better than others.

    1. Quite frankly when you end up with whole generations barely able to read, write and perform basic maths, I don’t think the main problem lies with the testing methodology or ideology.

      You’ve missed the whole point. Standardized testing is bad because it forces teachers to teach students only what they know to pass the tests.

      1. I’m not missing it, I’m just disagreeing on which is the cause and which the consequence.

        In the author’s opinion tests are the cause, I say they are more a symptom.

        One can argue they feed a vicious circle, but they didn’t initiate it.

      2. Standardized testing is good because it reveals where reform must be targeted, and which reforms work.

        1. No it doesn’t. Standardized testing is the federal government trying to implement a half-assed SAT (Systematic Approach to Training) process in schools. SAT is a program that is used in nuclear plants and other industries to verify technical workers are trained properly. It can only be done with people who understand the program, and it is always extremely expensive to implement. A training program that is run per SAT guidelines would require the evaluation of almost everything that isn’t tied down. Lesson plans would require peer checks and validation with subject matter experts, every test would require validation, every commonly missed question on a test would require an investigation, individuals who fall below average would have their study plans evaluated, etc. Additionally, periodic audits are required in all areas, including how the programs are administered. The audits will identify strengths and weaknesses as well as how previous weaknesses were addressed. The purpose of SAT is to measure training effectiveness. The idea is that anything that you do in training must be able to be measured and classified as a strength or weakness. Because of all of this administrative burden, the instructor to student ratio will need to be about 1:2 or 1:3.

          Standardized testing tries to pretend that it can be used to effectively identify strengths and weaknesses. A true SAT process observes instructors, observes how failing students are helped, and measures deficiencies in a granular fashion. It also measures how the administration of the program is performed. SAT is in your face checking for pimples. Standardized testing is a 30,000 ft flyby.

          SAT can be used for technical training at institutions that have large budgets. It cannot be feasibly implemented in a school, nor should it be. SAT validates the training of technical subjects. That is all it was designed for.

          1. And just in case you think I’ve gone off on a tangent, modern educational reform was pushed by ADM Hyman G. Rickover. He felt that SAT processes (of which the Navy was an early implementer) would be effective in schools. He also felt that only measurable and solid intellectually stimulating curriculum should be taught. He won a Congressional Gold Medal for his work. His influence in Congress remains.

            Correction: He didn’t win the Congressional Gold Medal for his education reform, though he did have strong Congressional backing.

        2. Standardized testing is good because it reveals where reform must be targeted, and which reforms work.

          Setting aside the fact that bureaucrats reforming education is a frightening prospect (Howdy, Texas!), standardized testing is used to deny funds to schools that are doing poorly.  Rather the opposite of reform unless you’re trying to reform us back to feudalism.

          1. What’s wrong with denying funds to bad schools?

            In any event, Martha’s right–all I’m saying is just the standard line of current ed reform:

            Arne Duncan
            Bill Gates

            But, thanks for letting me know that devoting my life to teaching my kids–and turning down jobs in favor of working in low-income, minority district–is null and void for you because I do not share your opinion.

            Just for a second, let go of your preconceptions. Why do you suppose education reformers believe this stuff?

          2. What’s wrong with denying funds to bad schools?

            The point of schooling is for students to learn. If schools are doing badly and you take away their funding, you make it more difficult for them to learn. If you can seriously ask that question, you should not be a teacher. Were there no openings in the foreclosure industry when you were looking for a job?

  14. Teachers (at least the ones the public should hope their taxes are supporting) oppose the tests

    I’m a teacher, and I support the test. For one, it gets administrators off my back even though I’m not teaching like everyone else–because my scores are higher.

    Liberals who oppose NCLB for partisan reasons should consider what it really does: it reveals which districts have been underserving their students, and it requires that they change. If you take the tests away, you allow the system to go back to ignoring their needs.

    I think it’s entirely fair that a failing school should fire everyone and re-interview. While there are as many bad charter schools as good, if a district has a history of failure the only thing to do is to shut it down. 

    1.  Is it possible to have an intelligent conversation about *anything* with out the whole ‘liberals/conservatives’ card being played?

      Seriously… this isn’t public school, and no one cares if your dad drives a Chevy or a Ford.

      1. The thing about teufelsdrochk’s post was that you couldn’t tell whether he is a liberal or conservative. He mentioned “liberals” as shorthand to describe a point of view, not to say “These are those guys, and we are some other guys.”

        1. The thing about teufelsdrochk’s post was that it was carefully worded to equate ‘liberal’ with ‘partisan viewpoint’.

          1. I’m a liberal! Huge liberal, vote straight democratic every time, and I always take the bait every time some teabagger troll starts talking.

            But: my thinking has done a complete 180 on NCLB, testing, and charter schools. So basically what I’m trying to say is: hey, I used to think that way, but I changed my mind for reasons xyz. In particular, NCLB does a lot of good for students with disabilities–a fact that many liberals do not consider.

            Plus my own personal belief is that, as computers REALLY enter the classroom, a lot of this data-taking will become invisible–think a system that follows your progress and knows your preferences as well as google search does. So the problem isn’t the data, but how hard it is to GET the data, and that’s really going to change.

    2. Utter nonsense.
       Historically, standardized testing  was utilized at specific developmental intervals in a student’s academic career and took a single day to administer. They were used to track student ability/progress only. 

      Currently, in California, standardized tests eat up over 20 school days a year and cost 2.9 billion dollars to administer. This money is never recovered through federal or state funding, it is lost every year. 

      The tests are now used to track teacher performance by comparing a student’s current year to their previous. If there is an unacceptable difference then the previous year’s  teacher is penalized without regard for any other circumstances which may have compromised the student’s ability to progress in the classroom and in test taking. 

      What part of that equation has anything to do with who is under-served? 

      Standardized testing forces everyone in education to focus all of their attention on just about everything BESIDES the students and what they need. It pits teachers against each other by making their job competitive instead of encouraging collaboration. It takes money away from students and forces everyone to work in fear of reprisals from state and local agencies who threaten to take away all funding if the testing doesn’t produce the number they want. The level of anxiety surrounding standardized testing has become so great that many of the instruction manuals actually include directions for what to do should a child vomit on the test. Teaching to the test offers little to nothing useful for students which I see everyday as a community college educator working with remedial English students. Teachers need to be evaluated by other educators and not a scantron. Students need to be taught by teachers who aren’t vilified because a student they had last year has a personal issue and won’t be in school for 2 days of testing during this year’s test. Students need a community to advocate for them, contribute to creating a positive environment at the school and a curriculum which is adaptable for different types of learners; mechanized education does not work.

      1. Martha, how about AP tests? Does an AP test really demonstrate that a student is ready to move ahead? Would you prefer to put only the best teachers into AP classes, so that the scores went up?

        Put it the other way: suppose Johnny, a senior, can’t add still. But it’s not just Johnny–it’s 15% of his graduating class, and it happens EVERY YEAR. Wouldn’t you like to know when Johnny should have learned how to add, and change how it was taught to him?

        You need that much data so that you can figure out who is the best AP teacher, and ask them to share how they taught a particular subject. You need to know that data because Johnny’s brain jumped off the tracks in third grade–and if you don’t bring it to the system in black-and-white, his problems will be ignored.

        So I just don’t get this resistance towards tests. Too much curriculum, sure, but all teachers are judged under the same standards. We’re professionals and we should be held accountable. 

        I should say that, for me, how student data is used is really one of the big challenges that WILL be solved over the next ten years or so. Imagine Pandora for education, you track that data and then USE IT to inform how you’re teaching to each student individually.

        1. Let’s stop a moment and lay down some things we all agree on:

          1) Tests are not useless. Some people like to say they are, but then those same people say that tests show us how great Finland is. Plus, can you imagine a well-taught, healthy, happy student who couldn’t crush a standardized test?

          2) Despite this, tests are used too often and in the wrong ways. Information is good, but only if the price is low enough and if we use it correctly. It seems that neither of these is true in many places. The price is too high because it takes up time and adds on stress. The use is wrong because comparing one teacher’s year to the previous (at least how I understand it’s done some places) is taking a small sample size and comparing it to an unsustainable standard. The years can fluctuate depending on many things out of a teacher’s control, and no one could improve EVERY year anyway.

          3) Testing can create perverse incentives as the stakes increase. Cheating, “teaching to the test,” whatever.

          What else are some things we agree on, and what are the things we need to debate?

        2. AP and high stakes standardized testing are 2 totally different things. I thought you posted previously that you were a teacher, maybe not. Additionally, AP students have access to a lot of support for test preparation since you actually receive something for AP classes/testing, college credit. K-12 standardized testing does nothing remotely close to this. Including AP in the dialogue is like comparing apples to oranges; they may both be fruit but that’s as far as the similarity goes. 

          1. Are AP tests accurate? For both students and teachers? 

            Would you agree that a teacher who averaged lousy AP test scores should be replaced by one who averages great scores? 

  15. While I think it’s foolish to put too much stock in standardized tests, I think that it’s equally silly to just dismiss them out of hand. It’s perfectly fair to judge someone’s swimming ability by asking them to swim 100m and so it’s also perfectly fair to judge some basic skills like arithmetic, spelling, and factual subjects like science. 

    What is left out of this debate are the advantages of standardized tests compared to the alternative. We’re not told what these might be, but I assume they would be unstandardized tests administered by teachers, presumably the same teachers who taught the lessons.. Numerous studies show that people are often quite biased no matter how hard they try not to be. Teachers have their pets and attractive, taller students usually do better on these measures. It’s a sad fact of life. 

    Standardized tests derail racism and lookism and favoritism. 

  16. The number of talking points/propaganda from the Broad/Gates/Walton cabal presented here, in almost every post, is shocking. In all seriousness, if you aren’t working in education, get involved with your local public school system, volunteer at an elementary school, mentor at a middle/high school, and find out what’s really going on. It will change everything you think you know and do something really important for the community, as there is a direct correlation between successful schools and community participation.

  17. This country has let businessmen take over its educational system and it is about to get much worse. Education is being privatized in this country just like everything else. The problem is, there are some things that a market economy is really shitty at doing and providing as many people as possible with a high quality education is one of these things. Education in America must be public, free for students that want it, and stress the development of critical thought and innovative reasoning. The further that education moves towards a for-profit model, the further away from opportunity the less-fortunate and marginalized portions of our society will become and this is bad for everyone, not just the poor but the the rich as well. When I want a clearer television or a faster smartphone, I support market forces being set to work to see what product comes out on top. Education, however, is not a product and it will never be possible to measure it as one. The standardized testing movement is a businessman’s inept attempt to measure education when the reality is that observing true educational progress is too complicated and nuanced to be scored in such a crude and impersonal manner. 

    TL;DR- Leave the MBAs and marketing vampires to less important things like telling us which cars they think are the best. Leave education to academics that actually know what the fuck they are doing.

    1. “stress the development of critical thought and innovative reasoning.”

      Hey you! Come up with a new idea or you don’t graduate!

      For extra credit, criticize why the first thing I said is wrong, or you don’t graduate.

      1. What are you trying to say exactly? If you elaborate, it is possible that I may be able to criticize your comment more effectively.

  18. Just how seriously does the typical Asian country like Singapore take testing? Unique in its place as English is the medium. 

    BTW it on google image “Singapore education system”

    1. Most of my college math classes were like that.  The professor came in, put problems on the board, solved them, all the while you were taking notes, and repeated this over and over.  Most didn’t ask you if there were questions or anything.  You were assigned problems to do for homework, and exams were given on X days…  I think several of my math professors said less words to us than what is in this post.  (Now obviously several were very different than this, but it is possible to “learn” math without actually communicating.)

  19. Don’t forget, passing Algebra 2 is associated with better outcomes later in life. Therefore, if we require all students to pass Algebra 2 as a condition of graduation, they will do better later in life. 

  20. At the very least, can’t we educate the poor enough to realize that buying lottery tickets isn’t a good idea. It would stress “critical thought”

    1.  It boils down to a lesson in statistics. But everyone laughs at me when I want to teach gamblers about probability.

      1. Desperation often precludes using statistics when trying to provide for your family in the big city. And the $5 and $10 winners are much more frequent than you realize.

        1.  I’m willing to bet that less than 1 in 10 people are $10 winners of those $1 scratch games. Also, the people that are trying to feed their family through lotto are fucked up on another level. Those are probably addicts. The vast majority of the billion dollar casino and lotto industries are by functional people. Kinda stupid, but functional.
          Also also, “big city”? What, you don’t think Iowa has gambling?

          1. You know these people are addicts? You have no idea, and your arrogance –that poor = addicted– is painfully narrow.

    2. In the category of “cruel irony of the month”, the only two people killed in last week’s shopping centre roof collapse in Elliot Lake, Canada, were the lottery kiosk staffer and a 70 year-old lottery ticket purchaser.

  21. Whoa whoa whoa. I can agree there’s probably too much standardized testing going on. I mean, if you’re doing more testing than learning, that’s certainly a problem.

    But these are actually really bad arguments.

    -…they focus so narrowly on reading and math that the young are learning to hate reading, math, and school;
    That’s presuming that the students would learn to hate anything taught by schools. If we sent all our kids to juggling school, that they’d hate juggling. Arguably, this makes sense. Forcing education of people certainly spoils it for a lot of them. But this has nothing to do with testing.

    -…because they measure only “low level” thinking processes;
    Yes, because they’re kids. Basics first. This makes perfect sense in elementary. Maybe not so much in highschool. I can understand how the SATs fail to measure a kid’s ability to… contrast ancient Chinese philosophies against ancient Greek ones. So good point for highschool students, but we don’t teach high-level concepts to 12 year olds.

    -because they put the wrong people — test manufacturers — in charge of American education;
    This sounds WAY too much like a teacher bitching about having power taken away from her. I don’t think teachers would necessarily be a better choice of WHAT to teach our kids.

    -because they allow pass-fail rates to be manipulated by officials for political purposes;
    Actually, the whole “my schools are better” thing is leveled by standardized testing. When the metric for schools (and there WILL ALWAYS be comparisons) is left undefined, it’s just more lee-way for politics.

    -because test items simplify and trivialize learning.
    Isn’t that a good thing? Making learning simply is bad? As far as trivial goes, no, I disagree. Those big tests were certainly a driving factor in getting me and my friends to study is school. If no-one is measured against each other, then I’d say graduation is trivial. (but really, it would fall back exclusively to your GPA [which still comes from testing]).

    -Teachers oppose the tests because they provide minimal to no useful feedback;
    Feedback is actually the primary point of testing. Hey, how do you know if you have cancer? You get tested. Who is struggling? Who is the smarty pants? Testing. A good test should even be able to tell you WHAT they’re struggling with. This bullet point right there was so balls to the walls wrong that I just had to post about it.

    -are keyed to a deeply flawed curriculum adopted in 1893;
    This is a good point. I think it goes back to the whole reading, writing, and arithmetic shtick. There have been leaps and bound improvements about HOW to teach, but the material is quite slow to change. Still, kids DO need to learn how to read and do basic math.

    -lead to neglect of physical conditioning, …
    Oh PUH-LEASE. PE class? Really? Schools are there for education, not to train up manual laborers.

    -…music, art, …
    Right, this is certainly a blind-spot of standardized testing. It’s also a pretty big blind spot for COLLEGES. If you are ARTSY then the educational track is not for you. Kindly GTFO of the education system and go make pretty things.

    -…and other, non-verbal ways of learning;
    Sorry, but PE, art, and music classes don’t teach anything that the educational system cares about. This is not some sort of life-prep initiative. School is there to educate kids.

    -unfairly advantage those who can afford test prep;
    Education systems have always unfairly advantaged people who can afford a good education. Did you forget that? There’s good education and there’s shitty education. Money flows to the good side. The poor have a worse educational experience. Don’t I know it.

    -hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring;
    As opposed to have absolutely zero idea about problems? She is arguing for LESS testing. To accept that we are dedicating too many resources (from the schools and the kids) to trying to figure out who has problems. The fact that the tests are imperfect is better than complete ignorance.

    -penalize test-takers who think in non-standard ways.
    Usually we just call them stupid. Now, there are questions which are simply wrong, and yeah, those suck, but by and far we want to measure RESULTS, not creative ways of thinking. Hey, if some crazy convoluted world-view lets you parse English better, all the better. But if it means you have no idea how the relationship between a grapefruit and a basketball is supposed to relate to a teepee and a skyscrapper, then you’re just plain dumb.

    -Teachers oppose the tests because they radically limit their ability to adapt to learner differences; encourage use of threats, bribes, and other extrinsic motivators;
    Not really. It just give them a goal. This is what the students need to know. HOW you get them there is entirely up to you.

    -wrongly assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known;
    This is a good point. Standardized tests need to be updated and it’s a massive pain. But it’s not like teachers know any better. I was taught cursive, but that wasn’t part of any standardized test.

    -emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance;
    Yeah, that sucks. Arguably it’s all about how the metrics are read afterwards, but yeah, this is a good point.

    -create unreasonable pressures to cheat.
    Much like the real world. Let’s call it an education.

    So yeah, I have qualm with nearly EVERYTHING in this list. It’s horrible. It presumes teachers simply know better. As someone who had some pretty shitty teachers through the years, that’s not a good argument. The good ones can be good even if they’re forced to teach a certain curriculum.

    1. Also, yes, the stand. tests give teachers goals.  Teachers desperately want this.  Take a look at your locality’s “Education Standards” sometime.  They are hopelessly vague.  Teachers are well versed in this “edu-speak” but even they seem constantly unsure of what it is exactly the kids are expected to be able to do by the end of the year.  

      Tell me what you want me to teach and I can do it in a way which will please you.  Give me “make ’em smarter!” and I can’t guarantee it.

    2. Sorry, but PE, art, and music classes don’t teach anything that the educational system cares about. This is not some sort of life-prep initiative. School is there to educate kids.

      Thank you so much for the Borg perspective, but some of us would like to live in a real society, not a hive.

      1. I was a science oriented kid so music and art weren’t my thing, but come on PE.  Bring back old school PE and let kids have some fun.  Kickball was pretty much our way of relieving stress and having fun.  It is probably banned now because someone “could” get hurt…

        1. Much of the population, including me, has never used any math more complex than algebra out here in the adult world.  College admission requirements are a great place to demand calculus, but requiring trig or calculus in order to graduate high school is like requiring proficiency in a performing or visual art or, god forbid, a team sport.  Any of them can be useful or meaningful, but hardly necessary for most people to lead happy, productive lives.

          Art, music and PE have all fallen victim to budget cuts.  Eventually, it will just be eight hours of self study with a robot proctor.  They’re already getting rid of textbooks because they feel that they can be replaced by online study.  That’s a bit like having a chapter of math in a book of porn and expecting that students will only read the one.

          1. I disagree with your assessment of the importance of math. I don’t use Shakespeare, Bach, Greek history, or any of the foreign languages I have learned in the adult world. But each is important as far as the breadth of my education. Math and science fall into the same role. Trigonometry is just as emotionally moving and inspiring to me as the Brandenburg Concertos.

            The goal for secondary education shouldn’t be specialization. That occurs later. The goal should be a basic proficiency with a broad range of subjects. This, in my opinion, is how an intellect is developed. Secondary education prepares you for the world not by making you an expert in one topic, but by developing your mind. This is why rote learning and teaching to curriculum standards of standardized tests are so detrimental–they do the opposite.

          2. Trigonometry is just as emotionally moving and inspiring to me as the Brandenburg Concertos.

            Good for you. Meaningless to most everybody else.

          3. Is there no value in sorting out the kids who can use math-more-complex-than algrbra from those who can’t even if they never go on to use it in the real world? They will probably do well in STEM professions, for one, and will probably do well in any profession that requires abstract thought (all the well-paying ones).

            Whats wrong with that?

          4. As I’ve already said, the appropriate sorting out is through the college admission process. As to higher math being an indicator of abstract thought, there are many branches of abstract thought, and math ability doesn’t relate to all of them.

      2. From my experience working in various engineering fields, most of the truly talented scientists and engineers have had some sort of art or music education (often self-educated). There is an astounding number of former band-geeks you will meet if you ever talk to people running nuclear plants.

        Intelligent people are drawn to the arts, even if they eventually work in the sciences. I think stunting art and music education would also lead to the stunting of the intellectual development of your students.

    3. Let me guess, Phil–you’re not a teacher.

      You discount all those things because you don’t realize they are true and you would  prefer not to believe they are.


    4. Your saying the arts have no place in college makes you seem ignorant at best. Have you gone to college?

      1. Ah, good point. There are artistic degrees for people who want to be classically trained. Do they even look at the SAT scores for people enrolling?

        But artistic people will be artistic despite whatever curriculum you put them through. Artsy classes in school are extra-curricular, certainly not something everyone needs. I’d hate to fail a highschool kid because he can’t make a pretty picture.

        1. But artistic people will be artistic despite whatever curriculum you put them through. Artsy classes in school are extra-curricular, certainly not something everyone needs. I’d hate to fail a highschool kid because he can’t make a pretty picture.

          But math people will be mathematical despite whatever curriculum you put them through. Higher math classes in school are extra-curricular, certainly not something everyone needs. I’d hate to fail a highschool kid because he can’t do calculus.

        2.  Art classes weren’t extra-curricular in my state college. They were a requirement to graduate for every student, as was music appreciation, and a semester of physical education. I’ve got to say that I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, but the class I took was about concepts, not product. It didn’t matter that I can’t actually draw or paint to save my soul, but that I understood fundamental concepts like how to create perspective in a two-dimensional drawing.

          Nobody is saying to fail a kid, because they aren’t good at art, but being artistic and understanding art are different things. They’re different goals, and the latter has a measurable effect at how those students perform in math, science, and reading.

    5.  PE, art, and music do educate kids. Kids with a strong music background consistently are better at math (even on those standardized tests we’re all bitching about). Art too, has been linked to better math and language skills. Physical activity increases our ability to focus, literally enabling us to learn more effectively. In fact, many of the schools who have the best outcomes on the NCLB tests also devote a lot of resources to these vary areas. I’m not even sure that the testing itself is the problem, it’s that the solution to poor test scores that districts seem to take is to eliminate funding for programs that actually do improve our kids’ abilities in these areas and replacing them with more intensive math and reading classes designed to teach to the test.

      My little nieces are very lucky to go to a school, which even though it serves mostly impoverished students, has a strong art focus. She gets a lot more art education than I had at her age. She has daily art and music classes, and three-times weekly PE classes. Her grade school is out-performing even the “rich” schools on their standardized tests.

  22. This article irritates me as it is simply, so easy, and so obviously flawed. It takes a great deal of arrogance to say that a system which has been in place for years has absolutely no redeeming value. The fact is tests work. Kids who perform well on say, the SATs, do tend to do well in college. A parent who went to a college-orientation-for-parents event said the admins told them that HS grades and test-scores account for some 60-80% of the variance in college performance. This means that the tests give useful information.

    Also, the tests are a scientific methodology. I’ve been working in an elementary school for a year now (I’m a grad student in the sciences), and teachers, all of them, worry about standardized tests and accountability because they fear that the test won’t take into account their particular struggles. The school I worked in was quite poor, but was working hard to improve itself.

    What I didn’t say was that statistics should be able to account for these extraneous factors (more or less that the kids have bad parents, are drug babies, poor, live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, etc.) Since the tests are fairly uniform and administered over enormous student populations, you collect a huge amount of data. It’s not even statistically complicated to account for these variables (assuming you can precisely identify the ones that matter).

    The reason teachers and their unions hate this kind of thing is, for one, because it’s simply not in their interest to make it easier to fire them (and who can blame them for that?) and two, because they’re in a career system that does nothing but shit on them and has for decades. Teachers make little money, often concede to benefits increases rather than salary increases (which is why in WI the teachers were so unhappy they’d have to pay more into their pensions, not because they don’t think they should have to, but because they had conceded to making lower contributions in lieu of a pay increase and Walker is now trying to pull it out from under them).

    So they get shit on, constantly. Many school administrators are former incompetent teachers (its pretty standard to go for an MS or MEd in school administration after teaching for a few years and hating the low pay and the work itself. I’ve seen admins be unbelievably kind to blazingly incompetent teachers and unbelievably negative to amazing teachers (amazing by every metric, even standardized assessments, you’d think they’d love that).

    Also, what irritates me about these “This is the problem with education!” articles is that for one, I’d put American students against any other country’s students. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years who got their Elem./HS Ed in other countries. While these countries are supposedly “better” than the U.S., I don’t find them to be more intelligent or capable. Yes, they can do calculus, but they can’t explain it to you. American education is actually incredibly focused on critical thinking (a thing which is mostly used as a buzz word, people talk about it but don’t know what it means). This is why academic research in the US is better than anyone else, we are good at solving problems. This is why there are so many international students clamoring to go to US universities and not the other way around. How many high school grads say “Man, I’ve gotta move to China so I can go to a good university!”
    And for two, American education constantly improves. Test scores go up every year. Every measurement I’ve seen says that the average IQ (a metric which actually does predict whether someone is “intelligent” (whatever that means)) increases in the US every decade, and has for almost a century.

    My experiance with 4th graders has made me believe there are only two main problems with education: 1) Pay teachers more and attract better teachers. Heck, I’d teach 4th grade if it paid anything close to what I could get going into science, and 2) Refuse to hire incompetent administrators. I think to a lot of people “Elementary School Principal” doesn’t sound like a hard job. Harder than some maybe, but not “running a business with hundreds of employees” hard. It actually is that hard. Keeping a large staff happy and productive while also improving the quality of your product is very very hard.

    1. You cannot measure a teacher of children by the scores of those children. It was tried with VAA (VAM) and failed. The guys who invented it (for use in agriculture!) admit it is being misused as an assessment of teachers.

      The variables are too many. Somewhere between 60 and 90% of factors that impact a child come from outside the school. 

      Again, poverty is our problem. The NAEP and PISA prove it graphically and starkly. Our affluent kids are number 1 in the world. Top. Cream of the crop. Ain’t nobody doin better. Our poor kids? 

      For shame, America.

      1. If only 10-40% of the factors that impact a child come from within the school, couldn’t this be construed as endorsing the idea that we’re spending way too much on schools and teachers, since they’re fairly irrelevant?

        As an aside, while to a non-American, it does seem that the education system has gone “metric mad”, it also seems that big single dimension results that scream “THESE CHILDREN ARE FAILING” is the only thing that can garner enough public concern that there is any possibility of fighting against the pressures of parents, boards, teachers and students who are all happier (in the short run) if the students are silently failing to learn any skills as long as they graduate with a high school diploma.

        However, given that the costs of extensive testing (concentration on basics, lost education days, etc.) are also borne by middle-class students who gain no real benefit from it, I don’t find it surprising that there’s a strong anti-testing sentiment among middle-class parents and teachers.  My willingness to help expose our failure to educate the lower SES students comes to a pretty abrupt stop when its my own children that are having to pay the price.

        1. Perhaps the money would be better spent on anti-poverty measures, yes.

          We have turned schools into a social safety net and they cannot sustain it–they weren’t built for it. They were built to serve kids who get a regular breakfast and have a bed-time.

          We need high quality early childhood education, universal health care and an end to high stakes tests. Those 3 things will do more than all the Gates-based reform his billions can buy. 

          You won’t get any benefit from “reform” as it’s not designed to benefit low SES children. It’s a scam cooked up by ALEC years ago.

          Poverty is the problem. Period. Anyone tells you otherwise, they don’t know, or they’re scamming you.

    2. Please note that there is a considerable difference between “American education” at the college/university level and the elementary/secondary school level.  While there are indeed many foreign students clamouring to go to American universities, you see nowhere near the same hue and cry for getting foreign children admitted into American high schools.  There is probably a reason for that. 

  23. Wow, the comments here are depressing.

    Even if you believe that standardized tests are the answer (they aren’t), the way they’ve been implemented is ridiculous. If the goal is to measure school or teacher performance, you don’t need to test every student. You need to test a statistically valid random sample of students. This is the same reason you don’t need to measure the speed of every molecule of water in a pot to know when it’s boiling. Adding more thermometers does not, in fact, help you boil water. The current system is the result of lobbying and marketing. It’s pork, pork, pork, pork, pork, pork, pork. Lots of  money. Talk to someone who works at a standardized test manufacturer.

    There are many examples of school systems that perform better than the US. They don’t spend the billions that we spend on testing, or use sky-high-stakes tests as we do. 

    The content of these standardized tests is secret, meaning that the corporations, rather than local communities, effectively set the curriculum. When your school is “failing” according to the tests, the same corporations sell (on the public dime, mind you) the materials to get the schools passing.  It’s the perfect push-me-pull-you racket: they create the need for their own product.

    The past couple years have seen a huge number of scandals around the testing, involving wide-spread cheating to avoid the insane consequences of NCLB.  I wonder, of the people here who support all of this: after all of the teachers are fired, where do you propose to find more? There’s already a huge teacher shortage, because it’s such a shit job. The testing bullshit is a huge factor here, along with the pathetic pay, being treated like “the help”, and having almost no creative control over what happens in the classroom. Where are the new teachers going to come from?

    Ultimately, this will all have to go in precisely the opposite direction: toward less (but more meaningful) testing, less central control, and more attention to community needs. If the public sector doesn’t pull out of this death spiral, it will happen through home schooling. It’s becoming easier every day, largely due to the internet. You can get curriculum, assessments, tutors, community: nearly everything you need. I am increasingly seeing families opt out of the public school system precisely because of the testing issue. This isn’t just local phenomenon: Texas has seen test scores go up — Woohoo! Testing works! — precisely because students are leaving the system.

    What a crock.

    1. The content of these standardized tests is secret, meaning that the corporations, rather than local communities, effectively set the curriculum.

      If they are secret, then how are they setting the curriculum? Secret implies that no can possibly plan to teach what is on the test. Is this not a good thing?

    2. I suggest dividing ‘taking tests’ from ‘keeping and using data’. The thing I’ve learned from this thread is that people don’t like taking tests, and that they generally feel that tests are too expensive/intrusive. What’s needed, then, is a genuine learning management system–one that is specifically targeted at k-12 students and educators. 

      This thread has totally convinced me that someone is going to become a billionaire by making real assessments pleasant, game-like, invisible, and actionable. We just have to keep darth vader (aka blackboard) away.

  24. I think the problem with standardized testing is simple and fundamental, and glanced on in the article: You take a test, seal a packet, and mail it to a monolith for anonymous grading by machine. Months pass and you get very murky results that do not break down an individual’s performance to avoid singling out students in the school. It also doesn’t allow for teachers to give feedback – one of the most critical parts of teaching. There’s no way to take a standardized test and learn anything about who is failing and why they did, and there’s no good oversight in whether the grading was fair or even accurate.

    Testing itself is fine, it’s the way we approach testing that’s the issue.

  25. Those of you whose ideas of standardized testing are based your own experiences taking the Iowa tests or the SATs or AP tests or whatever, please understand these tests are a different experience.  They are especially alienating and anxiety-provoking for smart, curious and creative students. The tests supposedly embody academic authority and yet they are riddled with errors and mealymouthed misdirection. They aren’t even good training in test taking, they are good training in navigating Dilbert-style corporate mediocrity.

    Though the tests are secret, there is a certain amount of leakage because students discuss some of the weirder questions with their peers and their parents afterwards (honestly, was anyone here ever moved to discuss an Iowa test question with peers afterward because the whole thing struck you as nonsensical?)

    NY State recently released some samples of items that might resemble future test questions so as to guide educators in choosing curricular materials.

    The first sample question for ELA (English Language Arts) for 3rd grade involved reading a passage by Tolstoy (!) but it’s about a rabbit so no problem there. It’s not originally written in English, and in this case the translator has taken pains to reproduce the 19th century Russian cadences so you get sentences with bizarre word order choices and the whole thing is so cumbersome and roundabout that you have to read it three times. In contains quite a few archaic words (like “treshing-floor”) that are important to understanding the piece.

    They do not tell test takers anything about the provenance of the text, which would at least be, um, educational, if not specifically helpful in understanding why this bizarre language was on your reading test.  Its like the test preparer is saying to 3rd graders, “You don’t know who Leo Tolstoy is and I do. I’m smarter than you, so nyah nyah nyah nyah.”

  26. BB had a post some time back that held one  complaint that changed my idea about education, it was in the form of a question:

    Who decided to lump children together by age, who said age was a factor in how anyone learns? 

    I understand the basics for childhood development, i.e. when a baby should be tracking, eye to eye contact, crawling and so forth.  But what about an infant that starts forming sentences two years early, walks one year early, swims, rides a bike, draws recognizable images…..why is this child stuck in the same age group and class? What will most likely happen to this child is she won’t thrive, she’ll starve. 

    Momentum is a powerful thing when it’s applied to  a child’s cognitive abilities, and it should NEVER be stalled or hindered. If it is, you will only be left with a frustrated child, a caged tiger. Then the pacing begins, the back and forth. And then  what happens? All together now: The child gets medicated! 

    If your child is willing to do something and shows aptitude, don’t put them into a system that herds them along like prisoners. 

      1. Ehh… I got as far as his ADHD rant, and then he lost all credibility for me. Seriously… dude…

    1. At least in lower grades the bigger issue is social maturity level with respect to the peers. Being much younger than the other children in your class usually doesn’t work well.

      When my daughter started school the head master held a long and passionate speech about how it is better to wait a year if the child isn’t socially ready for school yet. And she definitely didn’t recommend to start a year early. For some children it will work, but for a lot of children starting early will just translate to problems later.

      Not to mention… a child who is precocious academically before starting school doesn’t necessarily translate to that child being academically advanced later. No matter how much the parents want to believe so (“My kid can already…”).

      1. “Peer” is subjective, and has never been and should never be based on age. One 10 year old is not a peer of another 10 year old. 

        Your fellow peers are those who are like minded, supportive, and  usually steering towards a common goal.  A young girls dance troupe can range from 6 to 16, and they are all peers. 

        Putting older children and younger children together promotes good learning, Here’s how: many children learn by showing i.e. teaching. In my grade school,  5th and 6th graders mentored 2nd, 3rd, 4th & 5th graders in reading & math.  It taught children how to follow,  and it taught others how to lead.  A 10 year old is more apt to understand a 15 year old’s language rather than the monotone droning of an adult mixed with the squeal of chalk. 

        1.  Thank you. It bothers me that we as a society seem to think that age is all that matters when we’re talking about peers. As a child, I was denied entrance to our school’s gifted program, not because I didn’t test well enough, but because I was considered socially awkward. They said that it would be detrimental to my continued social development to be removed from my peer group. In high school, a counselor fought for me to be admitted to the program, and for the first time voiced what I’d been thinking all along. I had nothing in common with these kids who were reading Beverly Cleary books at a time when I was reading college level literature. We had no shared interests, and if I was socially awkward, it might have something to do with that lack of common ground.

  27. Wait a second! These tests are made by commercial companies? Who the fuck thought that was a good idea? Tests have to be made by the teacher who knows his/her students or, in the case of higher-stakes ones like those for university admission, by the ministry of education. Why would you trust the future of your kids to a company?

    1. I don’t know if it’s mentioned in this post or not, awhile ago a major corp go into some trouble because they wanted to push their products in text books they were “so kind to publish”.

      (From Article) For example, the 1995 edition, still in use in many places, introduces a decimal division problem as follows: “Will is saving his allowance to buy a pair of Nike shoes that cost $68.25. If Will earns $3.25 per week, how many weeks will Will need to save?” To the right of the text is a full-color picture of a pair of Nikes.

      One in the 1999 edition, gives a plug to Oreos, made by Nabisco: “The best-selling packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie,” it begins. “The diameter of an Oreo cookie is 1.75 inches. Express the diameter of an Oreo cookie as a fraction in simplest form.”

      ~New York Times   http://www.stayfreemagazine.org/public/math_texts.html

  28. What continually amazes me about education debates is that we don’t see high quality education as the single largest and most important aspect of what we do together as a group.

    With a highly educated population it becomes possible to do almost anything.  Without one it becomes inevitable that your country will decline.

    More than a military, more than tax cuts, more than health care, education is the single most significant predictor of future prosperity.  And yet we continually sell our kids and our own futures short with simplistic cost cutting and inane debates about teachers.

    Schools should be amazing places, with maximum 5 kids per teacher.  Kids should come out of school with the ability to analyze and solve real world problems at a level none of us were taught to do (even at the now-vaunted private schools). 

    Simple fact is we have no idea what the employment or economic environment will look like in 15-20 years, when current children become adults.  The best we can do it give them the tools to adapt and think creatively.  The worst we can do is warehouse them in Lowest Common Denominator institutions that will work for the kids at the top of the bell curve and utterly squander the rest.

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