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Solving Our Standardized Mess

We have had a long and storied national obsession with the application of standardized tools to address complex problems or circumstances. In the early 20th century, we used standardized intelligence and IQ tests to determine the suitability of groups of people to serve in the military or to hold certain types of jobs in the employment sector. Sadly, the results of this type of testing had the end result of sorting and pigeon-holing huge segments of the population, depriving them of opportunities they may have enjoyed and prospered in. This activity also served as rationale for the denial of immigration into the United States from countries deemed to reflect inferior intellectual potential, reinforcing many of our discriminatory practices.

So, how did this seep into the fabric of American public education?

In a simple word, politics.

Early in the second half of the 20th century, the United States experienced a collective “oops” moment, a giant gulp of our societal awareness as the then Soviet Union successfully launched two Sputnik satellites, not one, but two, within a month of one another. It was 1957. I so remember the impact of this occurrence. We had somehow fallen behind in an invisible race. And now the Soviets had the upper hand.

A knee-jerk reaction was seemingly the appropriate response. While the post World War II national educational agenda under the Eisenhower administration had been lifting up our disadvantaged and most challenged students, the focus shifted. “How do we advance the intellectual capabilities of our most capable students? We need scientists and mathematicians to beat the Soviets at their own game” became the national conversation and education agenda. This shift ushered in the de-personalization of education and the advent of its corrupt cousin: standardization.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a highly critical report on the status of the American education system was released. Using standardized test scores as evidence, the 1983 A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform report, suggested that public school leaders had prioritized access over curriculum and equity over excellence, causing the United States to lose its edge in competing with other countries economically and in technological advancement. President Reagan tied access to future federal education funding to increasing test scores. According to the New York State Education Department archives, President Reagan gave over fifty school related speeches during his campaign for reelection in 1984, emphasizing the need to improve student achievement in mathematics, science and technology.

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush convened a summit of the nation’s state governors and cabinet officials to discuss the country’s education priorities. For the life of me, I don’t understand why educators and leaders in the field of education were not invited to the table. Such is the nature of politics. The outcome of this purely political discussion was the establishment of six education goals for the country. They set a lofty timeline: these goals were to be reached by 2000, the dawn of the 21st century.

1) All children will start school ready to learn,

2) The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90%,

3) Students will demonstrate competency in grades 4, 8 and 12 in the subjects of English, math, science, history and geography; and every school in America will assure that all students learn to use their minds well, so that they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning and productive employment in our modern economy,

4) U. S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement,

5) Every adult American will be literate and possess the skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship,

6) Every school in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer a safe, disciplined environment conducive to learning.

How are we doing in the year 2021? Well, we’ve fallen significantly short in satisfying goals 1-4. While I wish goal number 6 was the norm, it, along with the second half of goal 3 and goal number 5, remain aspirational.

As national administrations have come and gone, we’ve used standardized test scores to measure outcomes. In 1994, President Bill Clinton introduced his Goals 2000 program, which gave grants to every state to choose their own standards and tests. Then, in 2001, George W. Bush’s administration established No Child Left Behind (NCLB), requiring every student in grades 3 to 8 to take a standardized test in reading and mathematics every year, as well as one test in high school. Test scores would be used to determine whether schools were making “adequate yearly progress.” Test scores would also be used to determine which schools should be sanctioned or punished if they failed to meet the standard of adequate process toward every student demonstrating competency in reading and mathematics by 2014. The Barack Obama administration embraced No Child Left Behind while adding even more ominous sanctions in its program, Race to the Top. Soon, NCLB was succeeded by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Quoting former assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch,

“We can say with certainty that the No Child Left Behind program failed to meet its purpose of leaving no child behind. We can say with certainty that the Race to the Top program did not succeed at raising the nation’s test scores “to the top.” We can say with certainty that the Every Student Succeeds Act did not achieve its purpose of assuring that every student would succeed.”

And on it goes with the fate of schools, teachers and administrators, and the opportunities afforded to America’s children defined, and determined by the attained scores of these unreliable tests.

Yes, you read that correctly. The standardized tests that we depend on are unreliable. Here’s why.

These tests are not diagnostic or useful during instruction. The tests are typically administered in the spring of the year. The results are not returned until the following school year, too late to apply as insights to inform instruction. By the time the scores are received, kids probably have different teachers. While the new teacher will see a student’s score, they will not be privy to which questions or types of questions the student got wrong. Quite simply, this process falls into the category of “too little, too late.”

The tests consume valuable instructional time. The typical American instructional calendar is already dreadfully short. Allocating large swaths of this precious commodity to the administration of a test that really serves no other purpose than to rank, brag or punish is counterintuitive. The United States is the only high-performing country who feels the need or obligation to test every student, every year, in grades 3 through 8.

These tests do not inform. They do not convey the type of useful information teachers and parents need to monitor a student’s academic progress. The only group that derives tangible benefit from this obsessive testing expectation are testing companies and providers. Annual academic testing is big business!

The tests we use do not reflect the 21st century purpose of public education. If we subscribe to the notion that education is simply the filling of a vessel, pouring in a collection of facts that can be recalled on demand, then our system of standardized testing is doing a masterful job. Within a standardized system, we know with certainty what is going into the vessel. Our challenge is then to identify any leaks. However, the standardized fill-in-the-oval, multiple choice (I call them multiple guess) answer sheets that we expect kids to labor over do not measure how the student thinks, or how they utilize their creativity, or their evolution of cultural competencies, compassion or empathy. How they rank in relation to their global peers on a bell curve does not offer any evidence of mastery of the sixteen essential skills and competencies advocated by the World Trade Organization. (Please see my February 8 post, “When Will We Listen to the Kids?”) It is not enough that a student can select a correct response. We need to glimpse his understanding of what it means, how it is significant and how it may inform his/her next steps.

Again in the words of Diane Ravitch, “The federal laws and programs have come and gone and have had no impact on test scores, which was their purpose.” Shouldn’t that remind us all of that classic definition of insanity; keep doing the same things while expecting different results? Throwing money and political capital in the quest of improved academic student outcomes for all kids while waving a big stick called “standardized testing” has failed. We have over three decades of experience to support this judgement.

Our direction moving forward is obvious. We need to stop looking over our shoulders to keep a step ahead of other nations as reflected by student scores on standardized tests, and focus, instead, on what is in front of us: kids. Our economy will prosper, our global standing will gain new respect, if we pay critical attention to the needs, both collectively and individually, of our nation’s children. They need, and deserve, to have educational decisions be made by educators, not politicians. They need, and deserve, to learn in settings that know them, that recognize their gifts and their challenges, and feature quality relationships. They need, and deserve, opportunities to satisfy their curiosity while exploring their creativity within climates of possibility. (See last week’s post.) They need, and deserve, to be able to derive meaning and relevance from their educational experience.

And, within the context of this article, American kids need, and deserve, high quality feedback that is the product of authentic tasks and experiences, and appropriate local assessments. They do not need, or deserve, or aspire, to waste valuable instructional time in mind numbing sessions of controlling a #2 pencil that will, in the end, offer no useful instructional information to them, their families or their teachers.

Once again, Assistant Secretary Ravitch: “It is time to think differently. It is time to relax the heavy hand of federal regulation and to recall the original purposes of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act: to distribute funding to the neediest students and schools; to support the professional training of teachers; and to assure the civil rights of students. The federal government should not mandate testing or tell schools how to ‘reform’ themselves, because the federal government lacks the knowledge or know-how or experience to reform schools.”

We need to leave the topic of education, and how to improve it, to educators by providing the nesessary resources and granting them the sufficient autonomy to do the work. We need to return to a climate of access and equity. Or as I like to say: “wind them up, point them in the right direction, and then get out of the way.”


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