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Standardized testing coming under greater scrutiny

by Alan Markow, published

When Governor Jerry Brown delivered his remarks on February 11 to the State Democratic Convention, he touched on what he called “this whole standardized testing business” in California’s public schools, and told the delegates that the state might already have “too much of a good thing”.

“I want to cut back the tests.  I want to put the teacher in charge of the schools, and I want an accountability system that takes into account the real experience.  And just doing a, b, c, d and bubble in – that’s not the future.  It’s more complicated.”

In the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, the governor’s comments might seem like heresy.  But they’re actually in line with a growing concern on the part of academicians, educators and politicians that standardized testing may indeed have gone too far in this country.  For example, Tim Slekar, a professor of education in Pennsylvania, pulled his son Luke out of his state's standardized assessments last year to "make my community aware and to try and enlighten them of the real issues" in the whole testing process.

"Stop treating my child as data!” he told his local school board.  “He's a great kid who loves to learn. He is not a politician's pawn in a chess game designed to prove the inadequacy of his teachers and school."

Teachers at San Francisco’s Mission High School share Slekar’s skepticism.  They don’t believe California’s standardized multiple-choice tests “measure the achievement of its diverse student population,” as reported in Mother Jones Magazine.

“But since punishments—including school closures and staff firings—are attached to these test scores, many students and teachers here say they have urgent recommendations for ‘fixing’ what Principal Eric Guthertz calls the ‘broken scales’ of NCLB.”

Gubernatorial candidates outside of California also share concerns about the effects of “teaching for the test” on their states’ educational achievements.  Even in Texas, ground zero for No Child Left Behind style standardized testing,

“several gubernatorial candidates have questioned the validity of the ‘Texas Miracle’ and called for sweeping change. Their positions appear to have public support. A recent survey found 56 percent of Texans believe there is too much emphasis on testing in public schools,” according to

Florida school board member Rick Roach decided to put himself to the (standardized) test by taking the 10th grade assessment.  According to the Public Radio International (PRI) story:

“His results? An F on the math test and a D on the reading test. That, says Roach, who has a bachelor's degree, two master's degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate, is proof that the tests are worthless and the rankings meaningless.”

Of course, there are strong academic arguments for the value and efficiency of standardized testing.  In one treatise, Duke University Professor Kimberly D. Krawieck confronts an argument that such testing represents the “commodification” of education.  She counters that such a position “demonstrates the politically-driven and elitist nature of much of the standardized testing debate.”

But an anecdote introducing an academic paper called “Alternatives to Standardized Educational Assessment” reminds the readers that we are talking about children, not machines:

“An American educator who was examining the British educational system once asked a headmaster why so little standardized testing took place in British schools. ‘My dear fellow,’ came the reply, ‘In Britain we are of the belief that, when a child is hungry, he should be fed, not weighed."

The paper goes on to ask the real question suggested here:  “Why is it that we do so much standardized testing in the United States?"

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