The real issues with standardized testing

The following article was written by Russ Brown, a high school teacher at Poudre High in Fort Collins and member of the Poudre Education Association, and submitted to CEA’s Pathways to Achievement blog by the author.

Russ Brown

Russ Brown

Standardized testing.  The words send shivers down the spines of numerous professional educators and create dread in the hearts of students across the United States.  Recently, there have been stories of teachers leaving the profession due to the heavy emphasis on standardized or out-and-out refusing to administer the tests to their students even if it means they will be fired.  Yet, the question of why the US has this obsession with standardized testing remains a largely unexplored topic.

Superficial answers

Many will point to the federal mandates of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” as the source of the standardized testing mania.  Yet, this still does not address why these policies heavily emphasized standard testing.  Others will declare that the need for standardized rests of the poor performance of US students on international examinations.  However, nations such as Finland have achieved high results without emphasizing standardized testing so the answer must be deeper.

A flawed philosophy

When someone really looks deeply into the standardized testing mania, a deeply flawed philosophy (or world view) emerges.  The foundation for the push for standardized testing, whether the proponents recognize it or not, comes from a view that students are products of the educational system.  In the students-as-products view, testing (just like with any assembly-line product) is necessary to ensure the quality of the product.  Teachers are semi-skilled workers whose job performance can be measured by their students’ performance on standardized testing.  The reason this is flawed is that students have no responsibility for or any ownership over their own education.  This explains why those teachers who care deeply are speaking out against the emphasis on standardized testing.

Alternatives

Some people will counter that students are not products of the education system by proclaiming that they are, instead, consumers.  In this philosophy, students (along with their parents) are catered to by the education system.  The market place will select those schools that are successful from those which fail the students.  In this marketing standardized testing plays a major role but, in the case of students-as-consumers, the use of standardized testing is to assist the consumers in finding the “best” schools (i.e. the ones with the highest test scores).  However, the consumer motif suffers from many of the same flaws as the student-as-product view.  In both views, students have no control over their education.  They also have no responsibility for their education; if something goes wrong it has to be the teacher’s fault.  After all, the customer is always right, which can be a dicey proposition especially if that consumer is a thirteen-year-old.

A better view

Rather than viewing students as products or consumers, a better way to look at them is to consider students-as-clients of the education system.  In the client view, students have control and responsibility for their education.  This view is consistent with other professional service occupations, such as physicians, attorneys, nurses, and mental health professionals.  For example, if a doctor tells his client (patient) to reduce the use of salt or risk having an unsafe blood pressure level then we cannot hold the doctor accountable if the patient willfully ignores the course of treatment.  Likewise, if students willfully ignore, or even sabotage, the attempts of a teacher then it is dubious policy to hold the teacher solely responsible for those students’ behavior.

The relationship of the student-as-client view to standardized testing is an interesting one.  There is an assumption that students are always trying to do their best on the standardized test.  Yet, having graded AP US Government exams for College Board, I came across dozens of answer booklets that were completely blank with no attempt at an answer given.  If these students, who had the possibility to earn college credit as an incentive, put forth less than their best effort it is reasonable to expect that on other lower stakes tests, such as the PISA, students are not trying to perform at their best levels.  Only the student-as-client view allows for the reality that students do not always try their best on standardized tests.

In addition, not only do students have responsibility for their education, but they should have ownership over it.  However, it is quite difficult for students to have any sense of ownership when the curriculum is being dictated by a standardized test (or series of tests) over which the students, along with their teachers and parents, have no control over.  Simply put, there is a severely limited role for standardized testing when accepting that students are clients.  This means that standardized testing cannot be a driver when seeking to make improvements to the education system.

Solution

The reliance on standardized testing as a driver of reform is akin to a contractor building a house without doing a soil test.  The house of reform will fail until policy makers, the media, and the public at large recognize that the soil around the house is the view that students are not products or consumers, but rather clients of the education system.  Only then, will the misguided mania of standardized testing be brought under control and we can move towards a system that will better meet our children’s needs in the 21st century.

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