Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Graduating from Standardized Tests

by Will Wlizlo

Tags: standardized testing, test-optional universities, Pearson Education, education, education reform, mind and body, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Good, Will Wlizlo,


Standardized tests are an oft-vilified, cancerous outgrowth on the sickly flesh of 2001’s No Child Left Behind education reform legislation. By shifting the focus of secondary education to preparing students for high-stakes exams, students are incentivized to memorize factoids, formulae, and figures, rather than how to think creatively, form a rational opinion (or sentence), or continue learning outside of a school environment. It as if the Department of Education took on the pedagogic philosophy of Mr. Gradgrind—a boarding school teacher in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times—who is an unwavering advocate of “truth” and empiricism. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts,” Gradgrind pontificates in Hard Times’ opening chapter, “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Don’t get me wrong, getting the facts right is important . . . and you’d better hope your teachers sow the Facts in our current system, or you won’t place very well or SAT or ACT exam. Good luck getting into college without a passing score.

And, for that matter, good luck taking a standardized exam that isn’t bankrolled, lobbied-for, manufactured, delivered, and scored by Pearson Education, an international textbook manufacturer with chokehold on American public schools. “To capitalize on this new world order,” we reported in our Jan-Feb 2012 issue, “testing companies are hiring high-powered lobbyists to influence the government’s educational agenda.” Let me spell this out very clearly: The privatization that these lobbyists are pushing changes the institutional goal of public education from knowledge, equality, or progress to money.

Also, had you heard that standardized tests don’t work very well in the first place?

Even if the interests of standardized testing are entrenched, a few good ideas might help chip away at their rote, zombifying intellectual oppression. For the sake of black humor, here are a few of those ideas bouncing around—presented in the form of a multiple-choice question:

What is an effective way to circumvent the standardized testing teaching paradigm?  

  1. Judge students’ aptitude with portfolios instead of test scores – Liz Dwyer, the education editor of Good, proposes a technique that some of the country’s best educators use to judge their students’ progress: an end-of-term portfolio. “[I]s there a misalignment,” Dwyer asks, “between the work they can actually do and what the test questions ask?” Narrowing down a quarter or semester’s worth of academic inquiry into one’s best work, Dwyer argues, will “showcase the pieces they believe reflect the depth and breadth of their capacity” and “is more empowering for students than a single number.” Portfolios are an apt assessment for a modern education, she concludes, because they display “creativity, critical thinking, and project-based learning . . . something no test score can quite do.”
  2. Foster a “test-optional” university culture – One controversial idea, put forth most extensively by Martha Allman in Joseph A. Soares in SAT Wars, encourages universities to conduct more one-on-one interviews and try to eliminate admissions based on test scores (an inherently discriminatory method, according to the book’s authors). As noted in a review of the book for The Chronicle of Higher Education, no matter the benefits, switching from the status quo comes with its share of growing pains. “We could not have anticipated the dramatic increase in workload,” Allman is quoted as writing, “the labor-intensiveness of the process, the challenge of attempting to interview the entire applicant pool, the technical challenges of written online interview options, nor the volume of comment from our constituencies.”
  3. Subvert the traditional university system entirely – “Almost nine out of ten American high school seniors say they want to go to college,” writes Anya Kamentz, the author of DIY U featured in our Sept-Oct 2011 issue, who also notes that “UNESCO concluded that there’s no foreseeable way that enough traditional universities could be physically built in the next two decades to match the demand.” Kamentz puts forth a number of solutions that largely side-step the current system, including open-source coursework, game-based educational software, and hyper-accelerated programs. In other words, breaking down the classroom walls. And if there are no walls, standardized tests can’t keep us hostage.
  4. A combination of a, b, and c. 
  5. None of the above. 

What’s the answer? Hopefully we won’t need to ask Pearson Education.

Sources: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Good 

Image by Renato Ganoza, licensed under Creative Commons.