Duck Soup: Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three

The Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, has designed a standardized test for school principals and states are already beginning to sign on. The idea seems to be that if principals know what they are doing, and can prove it on paper, they will be better able to whip their teachers into line. Then those whipped teachers will make the students learn. We'll be able to tell if this idea works pronto, because the students will be taking standardized tests, too.I have no evidence to prove whether this is a brilliant idea or a well- intentioned error, but at first blush it seems to have a puzzling circularity. Principals who test well inciting teachers who teach test-taking well producing students who are good at taking tests leaves me with an image of strange clothes tumbling in a dryer. They're interesting and even attractive, but there is no way to know if they will fit. I mean: it seems okay, but is it relevant? I have a curious personal history with standardized tests, which might illuminate my doubts. I was really, really good at taking tests in high school. I scored in the 95th percentile and up on the National Merit Scholarship Test and SATs. On the basis of those tests I was admitted to a college that would have rejected me if they were only considering my high school grades. Despite that certified aptitude for math and English, my college grades were no better and I switched to an Art major and dropped out in my sophomore year.I have dropped back in occasionally, for courses that interest me, and even worked for a while toward completing requirements for an Associate degree -- to tidy up my record. At age 47 even that tidying up seems irrelevant, and while I may drop in again I suspect it is very unlikely that I will ever earn a college degree.In retrospect I view standardized tests as being very similar to computer games. Like cyber games they involve highly specific skills that may have few correlates in the real world.I have successfully muddled through my life with skills that drew far more on Home Repairs Merit Badge than school, though the Pythagorean theorem is handy for building square rooms. And I am a writer, which is almost entirely contingent on being a reader and library patron. The most useful skill I picked up in formal education was from the 11th grade chemistry teacher who showed me how to use reference resources in the school library. I have offered a litany of "thankyous" to Dr. Harold B. Bender for over thirty years.But, back to tests. It occurs to me that if testing is to become the be-all and end-all of education, perhaps we should dispense with degrees and diplomas. Doctors, lawyers, plumbers and police officers all take written tests, as do most other professionals who require some sort of certification. Let's make it universal.Do you want to be President? Get out your number two pencil, and sit your butt down. Lineman? Bagel baker? Banker? Place-kicker? Race driver? Astro-turf installer? Astronaut? Fashion model? File clerk? Just fill in the blanks. And no cheating -- the monitors will be watching! I hear that education is in terrible shape and that this country is falling behind the rest of the industrialized world in the three Rs, but I am not convinced more tests will provide an answer. (Of course, the basis for saying that we are falling behind is -- you got it! -- standardized testing.) I entertain a gut level certainty that less television, fewer computers and more books would do more for basic education than all of the testing in the world. I think finding ways to keep one parent home with children through age 18 would solve a whole web of problems that now plague our schools. I believe that zero-tolerance for insolence, back-talk, and classroom disturbance would be a wonderful tonic. And I think that movie and television writers, directors and producers who create cutesie kid characters who defy their parents, teachers and other adults should be publicly humiliated and driven out of the industry.But, hey, I'm only a drop-out. Go figure.


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