What’s Wrong With Standardized Testing? Watch John Oliver Offer His Analysis

By Ross Brenneman — May 04, 2015 2 min read
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If you had to explain the U.S. system for standardized testing to someone who didn’t know much about it, how long do you think you would take?

John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” did it in about 18 minutes on his latest episode Sunday.

Every week, Oliver highlights an issue of national importance for extended explanation, and in a sprawling but nuanced analysis last night, the comedian focused on why the nation’s standardized testing system exists, and the harms that come from it. Among the issues Oliver addressed:

  • Why are schools making videos that replace the lyrics of famous songs like “What Does the Fox Say?,” “Poker Face,” and “Call Me Maybe” with lyrics about getting pumped for standardized tests?
  • Why are some students opting out of the tests?
  • How do these tests affect teachers?
  • Who benefits from standardized tests?
  • Why do standardized tests come with proctor instructions on what to do if a child vomits from stress?

“Something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of students will vomit,” Oliver said.

Here’s the full segment:

As currently configured, standardized tests are generally used in service of a complicated accountability system that’s been in place since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. And while proponents of NCLB look at some of the good that’s come from the law, like the disaggregated data that better trace achievement gaps, as Oliver pointed out, there have been numerous problems with the law, too.

“Unfortunately, accountability is one of those concepts that everybody’s in favor of, but nobody knows how to make work, like synergy or maxi dresses,” Oliver said.

There are some details that Oliver missed, but the show’s only got so much time to explain the K-12 system. NCLB, for instance, doesn’t mandate tests every year (only in grades 3-8, and once in high school). That doesn’t prevent schools from giving those other grades tests, too, to make sure students are on track in the years they do need to take tests, but that’s not a federal mandate. He also doesn’t get into the technical problems facing some of the newest tests.

Another aspect of testing that Oliver didn’t get to: Congressional inaction on addressing the standardized-testing system, or the waiver system that grew out of such inaction. Congress was supposed to reauthorize NCLB (or a successor act) eight years ago, but didn’t. The newest version of the law winding through the U.S. Senate keeps that testing regimen in place, but a skeptical Congress has yet to weigh in.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.