Assessment Opinion

Standardization and Its Unseen Ironies

By Peter W. Cookson Jr. — January 22, 2003 9 min read
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Why would we believe that educational potential could be captured by a standardized test?

How does one measure the growth of intellect, imagination, and aspiration? How does one measure curiosity, self-confidence, and hope? Why would we believe that educational potential could be captured by a standardized test?

Recently, my grandson spent the second week of the 2nd grade taking a battery of standardized tests in preparation for another battery of standardized tests that will be given in the 4th grade—when the results really matter. In between the 2nd and 4th grade, I’m sure there will be more tests. And if the folks that gave us the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 have their way, there will be even more tests. One wonders, why not simply bypass education altogether and make testing the sole activity of schools? Think how simple it would all be. Room after room of students filling out forms to be processed by publishers without all the confusion and messiness of thinking, arguing, debating, and struggling. I’m sure my grandson will survive this drive to homogenize. But at what cost to his creativity? And to what cost to his classmates and their families?

We all know that Americans are number- crazy “quant freaks” who attempt to put a numerical slant on almost everything. We love to rate stocks, memorize sports scores, play the odds, and rank each other on a scale, as we say, of from one to 10. We measure ourselves by the amount of dollars we possess and how tall we are. Each morning, millions of Americans stand on the bathroom scale micromanaging and fretting about their weight. We also use numbers to discriminate against one another: Differences in IQ and grade point average are rarified into genuine social categories. We sort and select with the same passion that the French evaluate wine and the British tea. The fact that our school system already ruthlessly sorts and selects students by race and by class doesn’t seem to us to be a moral outrage; in fact, we cannot get enough of sorting and selecting.

We simply must know where each student stands in the great “normal” curve—even if she or he is 7 years old.

Who in their right educational mind would want to create a 21st-century system of learning based on the mismeasurement of young children?

Isn’t it ironic that the legislators, policy wonks, and ideologues who are so disturbed about the dumbing down of America are the very same people who think that testing will smarten up America? These same people, who have made careers out of decrying the inadequacies of public education, are the very folks who want to standardize education into a commercial product consisting primarily of packaged, teacher-proof, off-the- shelf curricula.

Who in their right educational mind would want to create a 21st-century system of learning based on the mismeasurement of young children? What is the underlying theory of social improvement that justifies labeling children before they have even had the chance to learn to think for themselves? Is it credible to believe that we can prepare children for the 21st century by having them spend endless hours completing standardized tests? On the face of it, it seems preposterous. But, of course, that’s just it. You cannot take the standardization and testing movement at face value. Testing isn’t really about student achievement; it’s about something else.

In their 1996 book The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle make a convincing case that the attack on public education is politically motivated and is aimed directly at the American dream. They challenge the “test gap” myth to show that, in fact, American students compete well with students from other nations unless, and this is a big unless, they are poor and attend schools that are run more like soft jails than places of learning. To my knowledge, no one has persuasively refuted the Berliner and Biddle thesis. The anti-public-school crowd continues to trot out shopworn international comparisons that should make us all truly skeptical about the value of mass testing. Imagine Albert Einstein at 10 years old failing horribly on a standardized math test and being told, “I’m sorry Albert, you will have to be in the remedial class.”

The powerful have always feared critical thinking for good reason. An educated person (as opposed to a tested person) is able to think for him or herself, is able to ask difficult questions, and is able to use facts and theory to create imaginative alternatives to the status quo. Original thought is the enemy of conventional thinking; history is littered with the tragic stories of original thinkers who challenged authority and were punished because of their differences or because they were ahead of their time. Far better to have people not question authority and rely on conventional thinking to do their thinking for them. As we look down the long road of the 21st century, with all its opportunities and challenges, the last thing we need is conventional thinking.

For nearly two decades, critics—especially those from the right of the political spectrum—have ridiculed public education as a bad example of progressivism: Deweyism run off its rails toward social anarchy. In this revisionist history, progressive educators are obsessed with process, not interested in “high-level content,” and generally allow children to run amok. Nothing is more offensive to the educational right than “self-esteem,” apparently a progressive code word for political correctness. What the critics want is real achievement. They claim that America is getting dumber and dumber, and that the cause of this catastrophic decline in intellect is the public school “blob.”

The “blob” includes teachers, principals, superintendents, politically uninformed parents, and academics and intellectuals who support public education. The blob craves mediocrity. The consequence of this addiction to averageness is that public schools discriminate against the poor, reinforce political correctness, and keep our young people from really studying such topics as American history (as written, of course, by the anti-blob lobby).

If the present system is dumbing down America, why will deregulating governance and regulating content smarten it up?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these accusations are at least partially true. Let’s say that progressive education did corrupt public education by placing too much emphasis on social issues and not enough on academic achievement. And let’s say, for sake of argument, that the lowering of academic expectations, which the anti-blob lobby claims is part of some vague left-wing conspiracy to make America morally and intellectually flabby, does negatively affect the poor and people of color and does have classist and racist implications.

So OK, the anti-blob wins. What’s the plan now? To privatize the system and to enforce testing from cradle to grave? If the present system is dumbing down America, why will deregulating governance and regulating content smarten it up?

Here is the irony: Those who are most critical of progressive education seek to substitute a back-to-basics education that will actually accelerate the dumbing-down process, rather than reverse it. By removing education from education, the standardizers and testers seek to remove controversial and interesting content and reduce intellectual challenge and growth to questionable statistical comparisons. A process of standardization and excessive testing falsely sorts and selects students, not along achievement lines, but across the ascriptive lines of race and class that already divide America like huge social Grand Canyons. Dropout rates will increase; and for those who do graduate from high school, their best claim to achievement will be that they are “minimally competent.”

If this scenario were simply the fantasy of an unrepentant progressive, it might be dismissed as sour grapes. Unfortunately, it may actually understate the case. Let’s imagine that the provisions in the No Child Left Behind legislation are fully implemented, and the president and Congress get what they so fervently desire. What would American education look like?

First and foremost, parental choice and influence would evaporate because, like mandatory sentencing, the act would remove choice from the system; schools would open and close according to how they ranked on their students’ aggregated test scores. Alternative schools would probably simply disappear. Second, less and less time would be spent on such soft topics as history and literature, with more and more time spent on drill-and-kill reading and math exercises. The testing industry would be to education as the arms industry is to defense. The creating, scoring, and reporting of test results would become one of the country’s true growth industries, with its spinoff industry of test prep and extra tutoring. Third, children would be rigidly categorized according to the results of these tests, despite the fact that all tests are fraught with errors, and despite the fact that test results are highly correlated with social status and reflect the possession of cultural capital rather than innate ability or real achievement.

In other words, the test frenzy will create a dumber, not a smarter America.

By reducing education to a numbers game, the standardizers and the testers will ensure that very little goes on in America’s classrooms except test preparation. Instead of curing illiteracy, we will deprive children of the one thing that makes reading compelling: curiosity. Instead of rousing minds to life, we will be putting our children to sleep at the very time when the future depends on their intellectual strength and flexibility.

What the standardizers either ignore, or perhaps secretly despise, is that the genius of American education is that it is inclusive, not exclusive.

What the standardizers either ignore, or perhaps secretly despise, is that the genius of American education is that it is inclusive, not exclusive. We don’t evaluate talent at a very early age, we recognize the possibilities of growth and allow people to remain in the educational system for relatively long periods because we believe in multiple opportunities for success. Hence, our vast and effective community college system. Moreover, people may return to school at any age. This flexibility should be celebrated, not condemned. In the Japanese and many European school systems, the concepts of inclusiveness and flexibility are virtually nonexistent. Their rigidity and exclusiveness is not something that we should emulate. On the contrary, they could learn from us.

A second principle of American education that the testers and standardizers find difficult to accept is that public education should promote critical thinking, dissent, and debate. It is possible that an unspoken agenda of the testing movement is to stifle differences in thinking and create a homogenous point of view among school-age children that will be remarkably similar to the worldview of the standardizers and testers.

Democracy requires the tolerance of others. It requires the ability to accept ambiguity, and it requires imagination. The democratic society is always contentious and imaginative and, to some degree, disorderly. It is the totalitarian society that elevates order and denigrates freedom. Testing will never produce a free society.

I suspect that children like my grandson will find ways to subvert the testing regime, and that many parents will learn to “just say no.” I fear, however, that those who have already been silenced will come to believe that a real education means scoring well on a standardized test. I fear there will be a public consensus that ranks schools by test scores at the expense of evaluating them by the amount of intellectual excitement they provoke and reward. I fear that conventional wisdom will opt for superficiality and social control, rather than originality and social imagination.

I hope I’m wrong. And I hope that the rebellious streak so deeply ingrained in the American spirit will resist standardizing public schools and testing children until they are numb.

Peter W. Cookson Jr. is the president of tc Innovations and a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. He can be reached at pwc7@columbia.edu.

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