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Sorry, Michelle Rhee, But Our Obsession With Testing Kids is All About Money

Rhee, Nicholas Kristof and Arne Duncan exaggerate test results again to advance an ugly anti-public school agenda.

Photo Credit: Iris Harris - U.S. Department of Commerce via Wikimedia Commons


When President George W. Bush asked the American people, back in 2000, “Is our children learning?” left-leaning people everywhere got a big hoot out of it. Little did they know that the joke was on them.

The question not only revealed the inability of our national leaders to manage something as basic as English grammar. It reflected the incoherent means to which American education policy, with the support of Democrats and Republicans alike, would ultimately go about attempting to assess the impact of the country’s entire schooling enterprise.

Beginning with No Child Left Behind in 2001, an elaborate scheme to answer the question, “Is our children learning,” rolled out wave after wave of various assessments across every state in the country.

Results from national diagnostic tests, such as the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which had previously never made much of a splash outside of academic circles, suddenly became throat-clutching events anticipated with days of media buildup.

Results from obscure international assessments – Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) – suddenly became crucially important “data” for determining the nation’s potential prosperity.

The results of all these exams have now become fodder for nearly every politician and government official to make grandiose claims that their campaign or their administration is “for the kids.”

Economists use the test results to build elaborate spreadsheets to justify all sorts of pronouncements about “what works” in education. And a parade of Very Serious People in news shows and symposiums obsess over pinhead arguments based on testing “output.”

Are all these assessments useless? Of course not. As a diagnostic tool, each may or may not reveal something worthwhile.

As University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham recently observed, “Just as body temperature is a reliable, partial indicator of certain types of disease, a test score is a reliable, partial indicator of certain types of school outcomes.”

But that’s not how the assessment results are being talked about in the media or how they’re being used to leverage policy and change.


Now, hardly a week goes by when another data dump from testing of some kind doesn’t send Americans scrambling to see how our country, state, city, school or child is doing academically.

Last month, the most recent results from the NAEP provoked an array of media types – from “reform” enthusiasts like Michelle Rhee to all-purpose pundits like Nicholas Kristof – to make huge rhetorical overreaches using NAEP results to advance their opinions.

This week, the latest round of PISA results came across the transom, and a media feeding frenzy ensued.

“U.S. Test Scores Remain Stagnant” rang the alarm from the education writer at the Huffington Post. The headline at U.S. News and World Report exclaimed, “American Students Fall in International Academic Tests, Chinese Lead the Pack.” (Note to USN editor: The “Chinese” in the case of PISA are students from one city only, Shanghai, which represents an insignificant sample of the Chinese national population.)

Arne Duncan Dissembles

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took the release of the PISA scores as an opportunity to use the resources from his own department, funded by the American taxpayer, to choreograph a mostly negative P.R. campaign aimed at public schools and educators.

The point of Duncan’s campaign was to use “stagnating” PISA scores to spur urgency for a political agenda. He worked with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which conducts the PISA, and other groups to stage PISA Day, a media event that spent most of five hours (!) arguing that the PISA scores were reasons to get behind policies that have been branded as “reform.”