There are people, easily located on the Web, who oppose any and all use of standardized testing in the schools. I am not one of these. There is and there will continue to be an important place for the intelligent and critical use of standardized testing in education. But as I read the recent pronouncements from City Hall and the White House, I fear that the trend is away from intelligence and critical examination of these tests, toward an ever increasing acceptance of them at face value, as completely reliable measures of success in the schools. The about-face by Obama, from pre-election statements that signaled a much more critical approach, is especially worrying.
Much of the political language pushing the primacy of standardized testing borrows from economic notions of “efficiency.” As Henry Ford found, an assembly line, based on interchangeable parts, allows for the building of more and cheaper automobiles. Make sure the line runs smoothly, make sure the right worker tightens the right bolt at the right time, and out it comes: the well-running Model T. Why not use such methods to get Johnny to produce mastery of the Three R’s, efficiently, thoroughly, and without the bothersome interference of teachers’ unions ? (Henry Ford thought of the UAW much as the standardized-test enthusiasts of today think of the UFT.)
Some standardized tests are better than others, some test more, others less, for underlying abilities that are relevant to what we want from education. In any case, each test, and each use of a test, needs to be critically examined: does it do what we want ? To what extent does it do this ?
But beyond the virtues, or otherwise, of specific uses of these tests, there are some inherent limitations to which its critics point. Here are just some of these:
1) Experienced teachers say that it is almost impossible to eliminate widespread cheating on standardized tests, by students, teachers, and even administrators. This does not mean that these tests should be abolished, but it does mean that greater caution needs to shown in their interpretation.
2) It is probably impossible to test, in the context of these standardized measures, for some of the most important results of a humane education:
a. A critical approach to book learning. No, it’s not only Wikipedia that can mislead you — any established source is error-prone, bias-prone. Our children need to learn, as a matter of intellectual habit, to check one source against many others.
b. A realization that appearance is not necessarily reality. A man has degrees, titles, positions; another has none. The two get into an argument. Who is right, and why ? Our children should learn, more and more as they progress through the grades, that not everything that glitters is gold.
3) The more there is an emphasis on standardized tests, the more teachers will be pressured to “teach for The Test.” Here is a teacher, say of American history, who knows that a deeper and better understanding of the Civil War requires generous side-glances at European society, at the American and European literature of the day, at Africa and its cultures. But these things will not be “on The Test.” What is he to do ? Furnish what he knows is the better education, or teach, as Henry Ford would no doubt counsel, to “produce results,” efficiently, i.e. results on The Test ? What do you think he will do ?