How to fight the standardized tests

It suffices to say, if there were an honest attempt to help children and their teachers by administering standardized tests, wouldn’t these tests be used to diagnose each individual’s unique learning problems? Wouldn’t specific information about these problems be communicated to each teacher so school work could be focused on correcting them? Wouldn’t tests honor the realities of individual differences?

Apparently there may be another motive that drives this testing frenzy. Standardization seems to fit the needs of mass production, sale and distribution of products for the educational market. Could it be that the advocates of standardization, standardized (one-size-fits-all) tests, and the “Common Core Curriculum” are more interested in public schools becoming profit-making enterprises than helping individual learners become more competent?

Teachers and other school personnel, along with parents and their children, are now being threatened with severe retaliatory measures if they do not conform to the mandates of the standardization movement. They are mandating conformity with standards that run counter to what every teacher knows about children: They are all different.

Risks for speaking out against these mandates are real and pervasive. The thought of losing jobs is enough to affect an outward air of silence, and it initiates an inward air of frustration and fear. Our children are ultimately the innocent recipients of what many see as a widespread abuse of power by the standardization advocates.

Who is left to speak for those whose lives are being threatened? Perhaps educators nearing retirement have enough freedom left to allow them to voice their concerns. Concerned parents, retired educators and other concerned taxpayers are assumed to have freedom to make their voices heard. These groups working together represent perhaps the most formidable challenge at this juncture to counter the philosophy, tactics and strategies of the standardization movement. But these groups need a comprehensive plan to counter a movement that seems to have gotten out of hand.

What can we do?

Cooperatively developed plans need to be spelled out in understandable terms around which these combined groups can rally their support and energies. There is need for a short-range plan and a long-range plan. Included in a short-range plan will be found the measures to be taken to preserve the mental health of all those directly involved in this “pressure cooker.” Opting out is one measure, but if the test taking is curtailed, what will take its place? Here is where a long-range plan is required.

To accomplish this goal, each community must initiate a grassroots dialogue that will lead to greater understanding of the dire consequences for our children of those tactics and strategies employed by the movement. Out of this dialogue can and must emerge a new vision for education that can be seen as providing real solutions to problems that plague the existing educational system.

The first line of defense against the standardization movement requires far better specificity in defining the problems of education and possible solutions. To counter the movement’s current positions, a beginning approach might be to focus on invalidating the vulnerable premises upon which the movement finds some of its power and influence.

Positions taken by the advocates of standardization do not reflect what is known to be true concerning individual differences and individual development. The work of many experts in these fields and what is intuitively understood by parents and teachers is validated in each of our experiences and in the experiences of those experts. A unified voice on these fundamental truths could become a powerful force for change.

Legal action could be mounted that focuses on questions of constitutional legitimacy, potential human rights violations and evidences of graft, conflicts of interest and other possible violations of ethical principles wherever they are found. Legal action would provide an avenue for a counter-movement within established channels.

Of course there are political processes available, but they haven’t demonstrated much hope, as yet, for constructive dialogue and action. In fact, they became part of the problem, not part of the solution, by granting widespread approval of the standardization movement at its inception. It is encouraging to see official agencies are now trying to change/correct their prior demonstration of support. It was not that they lacked forewarning about the possible consequences. They were informed, but they apparently bought into the carefully crafted rhetoric of the movement.

Resources must be obtained to establish one or more alternative demonstration sites that would provide concrete examples of what is possible through implementation of a new vision for education in this 21st century. New money is needed to counter the huge sums being poured into standardization by our educational agencies at the state and federal levels, by private foundations and corporate interests that appear to have an underlying business agenda.

A clearer understanding of the circumstances that led to this current movement to standardize will occur when there is in-depth exploration of the possibilities for better solutions. This will take time and a commitment to lay everything on the table and sort out the best direction for us all – a process ignored by the promoters of standardization. When a cooperatively developed plan for the future has been designed, shared and supported, resources can be found that can assure its implementation.

We are facing a crisis in public education. The time is now to act, not tomorrow or next month. Educational reform stands at a juncture where we have a choice. We can continue on the rocky road of so-called improvements under way in the standardization movement, or we can select the less-traveled road of creating a new system consistent with our knowledge of individual human development and learning.

“We must believe that it is our destiny – and it is within our power – to guide our own evolution and the evolution of our new system of education toward a better more transparent and democratic future for all.” – Banathy, B. (1993) “Systems Design: A Current Educational Predicament,” in Reigeluth, C. “Comprehensive Systems Design: A New Educational Technology.” New York: Springer-Verlag.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is an professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.