The Case Against Standardized Testing

If what recently happened in New York was any indication, standardized testing in public schools in the age of No Child Left Behind and Common Core is facing a growing and open revolt from students, parents and teachers. In April, 150,000 students in the state reportedly boycotted the exams in protest. The uproar came amid Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent call to tie teacher evaluations even more closely to test scores, a plan opposed by the New York State United Teachers. But the opt-out movement in New York is just one example of the discontent over standardized tests that is fomenting in other states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee and Illinois.


Standardized (or high-stakes) testing is a hot-button issue that raises questions over both its effectiveness and the burden it places on students, teachers and administrators. That's why the recent publication of The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing—But You Don't Have to Be, by Anya Kamenetz is so timely. It is highly critical of standardized tests and lists 10 reasons why they’re problematic, including:

1. “We’re testing the wrong things.”

2. “They’re making students hate school and turning parents into preppers.”

3. “They make teachers hate teaching.”

4. “They penalize diversity.”

In addition to the problems related to these tests, Kamenetz, an education reporter for NPR, examines the history of testing; the politics behind setting standards in schools; and the testimony of students, parents, and teachers on the tests’ detrimental effects. The author also reports on alternative methods being utilized to measure student performance, and offers advice to parents on how they can help their children get through the pressures of testing.

In an interview with AlterNet, Kamenetz talks about the issues surrounding standardized tests and what's being done in response to them. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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In your research for the book, what did you discover that was fascinating or surprising about standardized testing?

What really piqued my curiosity was the history of the science-- the science of metrics. This is a conversation that we've had before, if people remember 20 years ago with The Bell Curve [the controversial book by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray]. It's a statistical discipline...it's very separate from other parts of the educational the process. And so it seems limited and arbitrary. Then this incredible kind of pivot was executed sometime in the 20th century where these kinds of tests went from instruments of oppression--they were always used to divide people and to screen people out and to prioritize resources--and then somehow these tests became adapted and serve as [measures of] equity, to the extent that mainstream civil rights leaders are calling for and defending the use of these tests. It kind of felt bizarre to me.

Most recently here in New York State, thousands of students have reportedly boycotted the exams. Would even larger numbers of students not taking the exams be enough to force education officials and the government to make serious changes?

So the opt-out movement has been organized and gathering steam for the last several testing seasons and it made news in over a dozen states around the country. I wrote in an editorial this week that I don't think this is going away because the major issues that parents are objecting to are not really addressed in the current debate.

If the question is how many more people will it take [for] action on this issue—I think we're already there. No Child Left Behind is being reauthorized and being debated, and the current version of the bill in the Senate would take away a lot of the stakes; [it] is going to reduce a lot of the focus on these tests and a lot of the worse consequences of these tests. So in that sense, we're here. On the other hand, I don't see this going away because a lot of these objections parents and the teachers have are much more global than that. And it's not about just testing. It's about school choice, a narrowing of the curriculum, and the huge inequities in resources between poor and rich districts.

Another problem about testing that you cite in your book is that it tempts cheating. Recently several educators in Atlanta were convicted and sentenced for their roles in a test cheating scandal from a few years ago. What are your thoughts about that case? Is it an isolated one?

The cheating... has been documented in 40 states in recent years. It's in no way isolated. This may be an egregious example in terms of the scale of it, but I think people and critics have pointed out this is classic scapegoating. Let's look at who was scapegoated. A large African-American district with a group of African-American defendants, and Beverly Hall was an African-American superintendent. And in fact, the only other person to be sentenced for this type of offense was a Hispanic superintendent from El Paso. This is a little bit of a microcosm of the entire testing apparatus because you set people up to give them a lot of opportunities to fail. And then you use that to designate people as failures and to show that everybody in this group is failing.

The very idea of the phrase “the achievement gap”– to me, an achievement is something that you accomplish or fail to accomplish. What we're really talking about is an opportunity gap. It's a gap in access to resources and infrastructure. So the fact that we even acquiesce to that kind of phrasing is giving away the store on the debate of what needs to be done to overcome what's happening to young people in America.

Another criticism you have about the test is that it penalizes diversity. It's been acknowledged that on these tests African Americans and Latinos fall behind compared to whites and Asians. Why is that? And it seems like we've been doing standardized testing for a while, but we're still getting the same results.

There are a lot of reasons for that. You can argue on class basis alone or you can talk about negative stereotyping or you can talk about the increased segregation in schools that's occurred in the last couple of decades. So what would the achievement of students look like in a totally racially-concentrated environment versus one that is more diverse? Those are all potential explanations. The other question is, why haven't the tests reduce the achievement gap? Because tests are not a way to reduce the achievement gap. They're only a way of measuring the achievement gap. We've been testing people for diabetes for 10 years and the diabetes rate has not gone down unless you give people some prevention tips or some treatment.

From your observations of schools, are educators just “teaching to the test” (meaning they are basically prepping them to pass) as opposed to teaching students something meaningful and deeper?

There are a couple of factors. How much in danger are your students of failing the test -- i.e., how many poor kids are in your school? Assuming you have some resources, then it becomes how experienced are you as a teacher. The new teachers that have come in—especially possibly less-trained teachers—might be more dependent on the test, and the test might dictate everything that they do. And of course there are more and less-test driven environments, like certain charter schools, especially the very “high-performing” charter schools. Why do we call them high-performing? Because they do really well on tests. Why do they really do well on tests? Because the entire school environment is optimized for high test performance.

One of the positive things to have emerged in measuring student achievement is performance assessment. Can you explain that concept?

It's written into the current Senate bill that will allow states to adopt performance assessment portfolios into their accountability machine. I think that's a very promising sign. It's a form of assessment that involves authentic demonstrations of student learning—science project or presentation or research paper—anything that requires a high order of skills that's meaningful to the student, [and] that they have some element of choice over. It's really a way of doing school--it's not just the way of doing testing,

It harks back to an earlier time in American education where schools were really thought [of] as community institutions and would put on these things called examinations. The people who were [doing the] examining were the public or locality. They would come and see the students to do a pageant or a recitation. It's kind of the idea that the community is responsible for the school...and learning is something that everybody takes part in.

One innovative approach being employed is using video games to measure student progress.

There's a huge amount of interest right now in the ed-tech world and the potential of games. The experience of playing them is obviously very addictive. But it also contains a lot of experiences that are very applicable to learning. As you play, it moves along the pace of the student. It continues to present new challenges with each level, and it's sort of tempting you to try to figure it out. And at the same time, what makes the game a game is that it's okay to mess up--you're gonna get another chance. Contrast that with our testing paradigm where it's all or nothing: if you don't get it right, you're done for the whole year, versus a game that is a continuous series of experiences. You have this idea that a game is a very complex environment where students or players have to integrate a lot of different kinds of knowledge to make a right decision. The pattern of the gameplay may create a way of looking at a student's train of thought.

You present a very strong case about the problems of standardized testing. But is there at least one positive aspect of it?

I'm not an absolutist [in that] standardized tests should be eradicated from face of the planet. If you understand their limitations as a snapshot of a certain set of analytics skills and don't try to make more of them than that--then yes, they could be the basis of decision making. And they certainly do provide simple and comparable information. It's the notion of multiple measures: that we don't make decisions based on one number.

You're the mother of a young daughter. Have you thought about what you will do when your child has to begin taking  standardized exams?

My job is to give my child the most personalized and individualized attention and resources that she needs to shine and blossom. And my intention for sending her to public school is that she gets socialization. So if it comes to the point where a test is really negatively affecting her perception of school or whether it's staying in school, I'm going to intervene. It's my job to protect her. But at the same time, my objections to this situation are not enough to get me to keep her out of public school, because I have too many other reasons for the idea of believing in public school at least to this point, having not started her yet myself.

Anya Kamenetz's latest book, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing—But You Don't Have to Be, published by PublicAffiars, is available now. For information, visit the author's Web site.

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