Assessment Commentary

A Little Humility

October 01, 2003 3 min read
Putting lawmakers to the test.

In 1729, Jonathan Swift offered “A Modest Proposal” to solve the problem of thousands of poor Irish women unable to feed their many children. Some had to beg to provide the most meager sustenance while, in extreme cases, other mothers actually murdered their babies. Swift suggested that the infants be sold to “persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table.”

My own modest proposal is not nearly so draconian. I suggest we demand that every state legislator, every governor, every chief schools officer, every member of Congress, and, of course, that educational innovator who occupies the White House take either the New York State Regents exams or the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. Those who do not pass after three attempts should resign from their jobs and return to school.

Swift obviously was being satirical. I am not. Policymakers mandate high-stakes tests that distort schooling, corrupt teaching and learning, and prevent millions of students from earning a diploma. They should not be allowed to impose such practices and consequences on children without first experiencing the process themselves.

This past summer, the superintendent of the Lawrence, Massachusetts, school district put 24 teachers on unpaid administrative leave because they did not pass a mandatory literacy test (which is said to be easier than the MCAS). Subsequently, the superintendent failed the literacy test three times and is likely to lose his job if he doesn’t pass by December. He attributed his failure to the fact that his first language is Spanish, and he told Lawrence’s Eagle-Tribune: “I think truly and honestly it has no relevancy to what I do every day.” Governor Mitt Romney and Commissioner of Education David Driscoll aren’t planning to become teachers, but it seems only fair that they should be required to take the MCAS.

When I mentioned my proposal to a highly placed friend, he objected, noting that most policymakers have been out of school for many years and have forgotten a lot of what is asked on the tests. Wow! How’s that for a blatant admission that much of what we “learn” in school is so irrelevant or useless in our lives after school, we forget it? You’d think we might ask why we had to spend so many classroom hours trying to learn it in the first place.

Advocates also argue that standardized tests are essential to measure academic progress. But if the only worthy educational outcomes are those that can be measured by tests, then we are overlooking most of the qualities that made policymakers successful. I have no doubt that more than a few of our governors and U.S. senators, as well as President Bush, would fail the MCAS, but they can hardly be considered failures. Indeed, I’m willing to bet there’s research showing little or no correlation between standardized test scores in school and success in later life.

A couple of years ago, doing research on my own, I tried the math and literacy sections of the MCAS. Having spent some 60 years avidly reading and working with words, I aced the literacy part, but got only 10 percent of the math questions right. I took two years of high school algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, and forgot most of it before the ink on my diploma was dry. If I took those courses again, I might retain enough to pass the math section of the MCAS, but barely. And what would be the point?

Last June, New York State Education Commissioner Rick Mills, one of the more ardent test advocates, tripped over his zeal big time after 63 percent of the state’s students failed the Mathematics A Regents exam. Initially he said the failing students would not receive a Regents diploma, but he later admitted that the test was obviously unfair and permitted local districts to disregard the scores and use grades to assess students. Ah, for a little humility.

—Ronald A. Wolk


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