Substandard standardization

Lately, there’s been a lot of controversy about public schools’ standardized testing.

Locally, a group of parents have taken a strong stand and have refused to let their children take the tests. One of their main reasons is the stress the tests cause.

Truth be told, I’m not opposed to stress, per se. In fact, I think stress can be beneficial, if it’s constructive and administered competently.

Unfortunately, the standardized tests are neither. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, they’re no damned good at all.

As a student, I hated standardized tests, but accepted them as a necessary evil. As a teacher, I still hate them, but now consider them an unnecessary evil.

A change for the worse

I know it’s a popular sport among teachers to complain each year that their students are worse than the previous years’, but that wasn’t my experience. Sure, I had a lousy class here and there, sometimes even a lousy semester. But I never saw it as a trend, so much as occasional runs of bad luck.

For my first 35 years of teaching, I knew what to expect of my students’ abilities and performance. Then I noticed a difference.

It was strange, even startling. In fall 2009 I had three sections of freshman composition, and as a group, each section was unlike anything I’d seen.

Things I’d accepted as a given were nowhere to be seen. Homework questions requiring essay answers were dismissed in a sentence, sometimes a fragment. And all too often the students repeated something from the assigned reading, that while true, didn’t answer the question.

When it came to in-class discussions, “answers” were frequently a one-word response rather than an explanation of any sort.

If I assigned a 750-1000 word essay, I ‘d get a bunch that were 500 words or less.

And when it came to research papers, the bottom dropped out. Reading, taking notes, understanding and synthesizing information, gave way to cut-and-paste: Essentially, the students downloaded or copied chunks of information and then repeated them (sometimes word-for-word) in the paper.

Even worse, a bunch of the students didn’t do the research paper at all, opting out for an F in the course instead.

No matter what I tried (and I tried everything I knew), nothing really changed.

It seemed as if the world had suddenly turned upside-down, and I had no idea why.

One day, in the midst of this, I was talking about this to my best work buddy, Karen Edwards. Karen’s a teaching newbie, having a bit over 30 years in the trenches, but she is one very sharp cookie.

After I poured out my tale of woe, she said, “Well, do you realize this is the first No Child Left Behind generation?”

Suddenly I had had my answer: No Child Left Behind – the standardized test makers’ Dream-Come-True. And in my not-so-humble opinion, the worst thing that’s happened to American education.

Some reasons

Why am I so opposed to standardized tests? If you’ll bear with me, I’ll give you a partial list of reasons.

First, let me say I’m not faulting our teachers. With NCLB and the imposition of standardized testing, teachers are stuck in a bureaucratic boot camp. They’re told what to teach. Period. So much for innovation, creativity, or even working with previously-proven methods and material. Instead, orders from On High come down and must be obeyed. Whether the orders are even sensible is irrelevant – they’re to be obeyed, as if the teachers are ignorant recruits, rather than professionals with actual knowledge and experience.

What about the tests themselves? What, exactly, do they accomplish? Good question and one I’m still having trouble answering.

Certainly, at some point they test how many pieces of specific, objective information a student has successfully memorized as of test time. Beyond that, however, I think they’re academic fluff.

For one thing, the students get no critical thinking skills. They don’t need to compare or contrast information, nor do they have to analyze or subordinate it. They don’t have to understand any fine points of relationships or think up analogies or metaphorical explanations. In fact, it’s less an exercise in understanding anything, than in barfing back chunks of information that may or may not be related to anything significant.

This may explain why so many students do poorly on the tests: Being forced to learn material they can’t relate to is about as odious as it gets. Memorizing discrete bits of information is probably as interesting (and constructive) as memorizing lists of laundry detergents.

and some more reasons .

As I said, standardized tests require short, simple answers. This in turn leads to oversimplification of thought – the one or two-word answer, the simplified vocabulary, the drive to fill in the blank rather than actually work to explain something. Of course, explaining things is the essence of English composition, so not doing it makes those skills suffer.

Finally, I believe standardized tests actually train students to forget. Think about it: Students memorize a bunch of information; they take a test on it; they forget it. Then they repeat the cycle. What lesson is being reinforced here?

Surely, though, there must be good things about standardized tests, right? Yes, there are.

One is they’re easy to correct – so easy, you don’t even need a person to do it. A machine will do just fine, thank you.

Another great benefit of standardized tests – they make oodles of money for some people, somewhere. They may make a lot of other people – students, teachers and parents – utterly miserable, but if some fat cat across the country just bought a BMW or a trip to Rome on our dime, the least we can do is be happy for him, isn’t it?

And speaking of the parents, the ones who are not letting their kids take those tests? My hat’s off to all of them for their protest. But will that change the standardized test behemoth? I doubt it.

In bureaucracy, there’s a principle much like Newton’s first law of motion. Essentially, Newton’s law says that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. In bureaucracy it can be stated that once a law gets enacted, it tends to stay enacted no matter how counter-productive, destructive, or even downright stupid it is. To rescind such a law would require bureaucrats to admit they made a huge mistake, something you’re as likely to see as the government developing alternative energy and mass transit.

No, I admire those parents because they’re making a statement, acting on principles, standing up for a belief. In what’s become The Land of Chronic Whiners, they are actually doing something.

And that might be the best lesson their children will learn – certainly far better than anything they’ll learn from a standardized test.