Opinion
Assessment Opinion

Standards for What?

By Robert B. Reich — June 20, 2001 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Standardized tests have nothing to do with preparing students for what they’ll do when they leave our schools.

The latest rage in education is standardized tests. Tests have been around for a long time, of course, but have never been employed to the extent they are now. Young people are now being tested and then retested a year or two later, and then retested again and again. Our schools are morphing into test-taking factories. Politicians like tests because they don’t cost much money and they reassure the public that children are at least learning something.

Paradoxically, we’re embracing standardized tests just when the new economy is eliminating standardized jobs. If there’s one certainty about what today’s schoolchildren will be doing a decade or two from now, it’s that they won’t all be doing the same things, and they certainly won’t be drawing on the same body of knowledge. The purpose of education is not only to train people to become productive participants in an economy, of course. And yet, the work that people will do after they leave school has a necessary bearing upon what and how they learn.

Jobs in the old mass-production economy came in a few standard varieties: research, production, sales, clerical, managerial, professional. A system that depended on economies of scale didn’t need many different specialized skills. Nor did it need much original thinking. Most people spent most of their working lives performing the same operations over and over, in the company of many other people who performed the same or similar operations. A standardized education was appropriate because jobs were standardized. In general, the largest pedagogical challenge was to train young people to sit still for long periods of time, be patient, follow directions, and be punctual. These were the core competencies that industry required.

But the old mass- production system is disappearing. Computers, the Internet, and digital commerce have exploded the old job categories into a vast array of new niches, creating a kaleidoscope of ways to make a living. Musicians, artists, writers, and performing artists are discovering multimedia outlets for their talents. Large numbers of people in the United States and elsewhere are starting their own Web-based businesses and auction houses. People who had been clerks and secretaries are turning into spreadsheet operators, desktop publishers, and Web- based inventory-control managers. Salespeople are becoming specialty technicians, finding or creating unique products to meet particular customer needs.

There’s also an increasing demand for people who provide personal attention and comfort. This includes an upsurge in advisers, counselors, coaches, and trainers. Physical and occupational therapists are needed. Home health-care workers, elder-care assistants, and child-care workers are all in short supply. And we have a chronic need for teachers at all levels, able to improve people’s skills throughout their lifetimes.


Success in any of these jobs doesn’t depend on mastery of one uniform body of knowledge as measured by standardized tests. Quite the opposite: Most of the work in the emerging economy requires an ability to learn on the job, to discover what needs to be known, and to find and use it quickly.

Many of the new jobs depend on creativity—on out-of-the-box thinking, originality, and flair. Almost by definition, standardized tests can’t measure these sorts of things. They’re best at measuring the ability to regurgitate facts and apply standard modes of analysis. Yet in the new economy, facts and standard analyses can be uncovered at the click of a mouse. Information is efficiently stored in bits and bytes. So it’s less necessary to know a lot of particular things. It’s far more important to learn how to identify and solve new problems, think critically, and challenge assumptions.

Other jobs in the emerging economy depend on the ability to listen and to discern what other people are feeling or what they’re needing. Advisers, counselors, and consultants must be able to hear beyond the words that other people are using, and diagnose what’s really going on. Empathy is becoming a critically important skill. Here again, standardized tests are often irrelevant.

Many jobs depend on creativity. Standardized tests can’t measure these sorts of things.

Yes, of course, the emerging economy requires that people read and speak clearly. They also must know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

Standardized tests can help measure whether children have achieved an adequate level of communication skills and numeracy, and even help pinpoint where children need more guidance. But in many other ways, our new obsession with standardized tests runs exactly counter to the new demands of the modern economy. It is training a generation of young people to become exquisitely competent at taking standardized tests, and a generation of teachers to become exceedingly good at teaching how to take them. Neither of these competences has much to do with preparing young people for what they will encounter when they leave our schools.

The more disturbing prospect is that all the testing may have the opposite effect—dulling young people’s interest in learning and dimming their creative sparks at just a time in history when learning and creativity are more important to the economy than ever before.


Robert B. Reich, who served as U.S. secretary of labor under President Clinton, is the university professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. His latest book is The Future of Success.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Standards for What?

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
K-12 Cybersecurity in the Real World: Lessons Learned & How to Protect Your School
Gain an expert understanding of how school districts can improve their cyber resilience and get ahead of cybersecurity challenges and threats.
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Schools 101: Best Practices & Key Benefits
Learn how to develop a coordinated plan of action for addressing student trauma and
fostering supportive, healthy environments.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Assessment Opinion Rebooting Assessment and Accountability Post-Pandemic: What Now?
The disruptions of the pandemic have made this an ideal time to rethink accountability and assessment.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Assessment Don’t Use State Tests ‘Punitively,’ Ed. Secretary Cardona Warns
As federal accountability restarts after two years, guidance from the department underscores how complicated that could be.
5 min read
Image of data, target goals, and gaining ground.
iStock/Getty
Assessment Latest Round of Federal Grants Aims to Make States' Assessments More Equitable, Precise
The U.S. Department of Education awarded over $29 million in competitive grants to 10 state education agencies.
2 min read
Assessment review data 599911460
vladwei/iStock/Getty<br/>
Assessment Opinion Are There Better Ways Than Standardized Tests to Assess Students? Educators Think So
Student portfolios and school community surveys are but two of the many alternatives to standardized tests.
3 min read
Illustration of students in virus environment facing wave of test sheets.
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (Images: iStock/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty)