A closer look at standardized testing

There is little opportunity to seriously debate the efficacy of the standardization movement or the implications of using standardized tests as the measure of learning outcomes. After participating in four “North Country Forums” that were advertised as a chance to debate issues, I have come away feeling like I have been “whipsawed” by the abstract rhetoric of perhaps well meaning, perhaps ignorant or likely ingenuous dialogue from those who are making decisions about public education. In the spirit of inquiry, consider the following which represents a fraction of what should be examined in depth.

Marion Brady recently published the following in the Washington Post. “I clicked on the standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects and scrolled down to pages 61 and 62, where you can find lists of standards for different grades. Let’s look at the standards for 9th and 10th graders. There are two lists for the various subjects, but they are nearly identical. Reading them, I was struck by something I’ll boldface for the sake of emphasis:

Standard 1. “Cite specific textual evidence”

Standard 2. “Determine the central ideasof a text”

Standard 3. “Followa proceduredefined in the text.”

Standard 4. “Determine the meaningrelevant to texts”

Standard 5. “Analyze the relationshipsin a text.”

Standard 6. Analyze the author’s purpose in a text”

Standard 7. Translatewords in a text”

Standard 8. “Accessevidencein a text”

Standard 9. “Compare findingspresented in a text”

Standard 10. “read and comprehendtext

“To their credit, the standards require kids to cite, compare, translate, determine, define, analyze”

Are these the central focus of attention for the disciples of standardization? Do they contain the final statement of truth essential to all educated individuals, or might we have the right to suggest there are far better alternatives?

Examination of Brady’s significant discoveries reveals three additional thoughts:

1) All the standards refer to “texts” supposedly derived from the common core, written by the biased advocates of standardization, mass produced and sold to schools by big businesses with top down endorsements from state and national education officials who accepted huge sums of money in exchange for conformity.

2) Eight of the above ten cited intellectual processes require performance at the lowest levels of cognition (the act or process of knowing) as defined in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives – Cognitive Domain. The lowest levels of cognition are the only ones listed in spite of the fact that the standardization advocates claim to be developing critical thinking skills.

According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, the highest level of cognition is critical thinking, the lowest level is simple knowledge or awareness of the existence of something; the next higher level is commonly referred to as comprehension, which involves translation, interpretation and extrapolation, stated in one’s common language. To “cite,” “translate,” “determine” and “define” all represent the least complex or lowest levels of cognition.

To “analyze” and possibly “compare” represents middle levels of cognition, but If a student were to truly analyze the content of their worksheets or test questions, their answers would most likely not be allowed as a “correct” answer.

There are reasons for the obvious omission from the listing of standards for the three highest levels of cognition called synthesis, critical thinking and creative evaluation. Synthesizing is an intellectual process of putting together one’s ideas having been separated out through an independent analysis. Synthesis leads to critical evaluations. Since no two people have the same genetic makeup, or the same experiences, each person perceives/defines and conceives the analyzed parts somewhat differently. The results of synthesizing those parts are therefore always unique to each individual.

Since learning outcomes from synthesis are unique in significant ways, they cannot be tested or accurately measured by a “standardized” test. If they can’t be measured in conventional terms, these higher level cognitive processes are simply ignored in the listing of standards for literacy along with hypothesizing and the role of curiosity.

Synthesis is required for critically evaluating people’s ideas and for problem solving.

3) The “analyze” and “compare” requirements, along with other requirements, focus exclusively on just what is in the “text” with no mention of requirements that involve the higher levels of cognition. Nevertheless, when listening to the rhetoric of decision makers one would think critical thinking and problem solving are given the highest priority. At least for the literacy standards, this is clearly not the case.

In addition, many questions that appear on the standardized tests and worksheets require formal logic which is the most mature stage of intellectual development; it does not ordinarily emerge until the teenage years. Significant characteristics of formal logic involve the higher levels of cognition -?synthesizing and critical/creative evaluation -?deliberately omitted from the literacy standards since they clearly cannot be tested with a standardized test.

Only about 12 percent of 12-year-olds have developed the initial ability to think with formal logic. All younger students will be frustrated with test questions that require formal logic, and fail to provide an insightful answer due to their biological development, regardless of instruction. However, they might guess correctly, or after sufficient repetitions be able to regurgitate the correct answer with temporary reliability.

Let’s be clear about what is being sold to our schools. Possibly the advocates of the common core and standardized testing are ignorant about the levels of cognition or they may have another agenda beyond their unsubstantiated claims to be preparing students for college and a career. Could it be to make money by selling the common worksheets and texts to the schools in all cooperating states?

Clearly, the real results of the creation and implementation of the common core curriculum, and its companion standardized tests, are becoming increasingly understood for what they are. There are few redeeming features in the standardization movement and the need for revamping the whole system appears more and more to be the only way out of this mess. This will require the effort and support of the broader population.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Email him at remakingourschools@willex.com.