Do we need Standardized Testing? How can we know students are learning without it?

Posted on August 25, 2015


“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds,

so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”― Plato

Recently, I had a conversation about education with someone that shocked me. The man I was speaking with is someone who most people would call a “hippie.” He’s in his sixties, his hair is waist length, he’s retired from the University of Michigan, and he questions and rejects many of mainstream society’s values and practices, usually because of their dehumanizing and harmful effects on people. That’s why I was shocked when he argued in favor of standardized testing for today’s schoolchildren. WHAT??? There is NOTHING standardized about him! I couldn’t believe what he was saying!

He said that he wants people to be able to read the speed limit and know what it means. I said that, yes, of course, DRIVERS need to prove their knowledge to get licenses, but that the STATE needs to give the test as the authority who issues licenses. They do give a standardized test, but they also give a DRIVING test, because being able to answer standardized, multiple-choice questions about driving is NOT the same as actually driving. Even the state wants us to demonstrate that we know and can follow the rules of the road–not simply pass a standardized test. This argument fails as a reason for standardized testing in schools.

He said, “What about multiplication tables? Shouldn’t there be a standardized test for that?”

No. There is absolutely NO reason why anyone should take a standardized test to show knowledge of basic math facts. A classroom teacher can devise lots of ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge of math facts, including a classroom test where students simply fill in the table. This argument fails as a reason for standardized testing in schools.

The conversation ended when I headed off for the 2nd stage to see a band, but the strangest and most ironic part of the conversation is this: while the hippie argued that we MUST have standardized testing so that students can prove they have common knowledge, he was sitting at a very successful music festival (Holler Fest), at a very successful organic farm (Frog Holler), which is run by a family who home-schooled their children, who are now grown men! This family, farm, and festival demonstrate the failure of his arguments! Without ANY kind of standardized test EVER in their lives, these folks have learned how to grow food; run a successful business; play, compose, record, and market their music; organize a festival that is approaching its 10-year anniversary; and build a thriving community of farmers, foodies, musicians, artists, craftspeople, educators, and engaged citizens who care for land, people, animals, human rights, and social justice! How can the hippie argue for standardized testing in the midst of all this non-standardized excellence?

Looking back at the conversation, I realized that, unfortunately, the hippie, like most Americans, has been “drinking the Kool-Aid” that is served to the American public through media controlled by education “reformers” like Bill Gates, the Koch Brothers, and the Waltons, who, even though they are not educators and many of them never have been educators, have broadcast the message that knowledge only counts if it can be recorded on scan-tron sheets. This is a direct result of the corporate media machine that has maligned public education since the 1990s (including NPR). It is such a powerful campaign that it can convince a hippie who graduated from high school without ever taking a single standardized test that other people’s children couldn’t possibly demonstrate their knowledge of academic subject matter without standardized testing.

May Erlewine, Mike Shimmin, Seth Bernard, and Max Lockwood on the Main Stage at Holler Fest 2015.

May Erlewine, Mike Shimmin, Seth Bernard, and Max Lockwood on the Main Stage at Holler Fest 2015.

The media machine that the reformers control has blinded even the most unconventional person to the reality that people learn and demonstrate learning every single day without any kind of standardized test. Even while his life and the lives of those around him demonstrate the irrelevance of standardized testing, he spouts the corporate reform talking points.

I think the problem is this: the hippie has confused “standardized testing” with “demonstrating learning.” Perhaps he thinks that the multiplication table is a standardized test because math facts are standardized. But they are not the same. Today’s public school students, even those as young as five years old, are facing hundreds of hours of standardized tests that are written and scored by non-educators, with “passing” scores set at a level that labels around 70% of students “failing,” so that schools can be sold test-prep materials, devices, software, and consultants, so that corporations can increase profits. Please note: the testing industry is NOT filled with teachers! Teachers know that students can demonstrate knowledge by writing and performing a song, a play, a dialogue; by building a structure; by planting a garden; by interviewing somebody; by writing a poem, story, song, essay, letter, etc; by creating a website; by giving a speech; by performing a dance; by playing a game; by teaching another student; and by doing LOTS of other things–none of which require a scan-tron sheet or a repurposed shopping center full of low-wage workers to grade them.

I’d like the hippie to remember a couple of things:

  1. Before the rise of industrialized education, human beings built civilizations that lasted thousands of years, with complex systems, both physical and social, and passed that knowledge down through the generations–without any standardized testing.
  2. The hippie, along with the rest of us, is surrounded by successful people who have managed to learn and demonstrate their learning without taking any standardized tests!
  3. Currently, over 850 colleges and universities admit students without standardized test scores. If they were necessary to prove a student’s knowledge and skills, they would be required by all.
  4. MOST TELLING: The United States’ Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and the President of the United States, Barack Obama, send their kids to schools with NO standardized testing. If the POTUS and the U.S. Secretary of Education, with all their education and power, can feel confident that their children’s classroom teachers can assess their students’ knowledge and skills without standardized tests, then the hippie can have that same confidence in the teachers at the local school.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, people. Kids don’t need standardized tests to show what they’ve learned at school, and teachers don’t need standardized tests to show what students have learned. If you want to know how a student is doing, ask the teacher. The teacher knows not only how well your child is doing academically, but also how well s/he is doing emotionally and socially at school, as well as how funny, bright, creative, and interesting s/he is, among other things!

“Then who needs standardized tests?” you might ask. The answer is: corporate “reformers”. They need children to take standardized tests so that they can: generate low scores, blame and punish teachers, create “failing” schools, sell “solutions” for failing schools, and eventually, privatize education so that it will be a never-ending source of profit for them and their families.

One of the main reasons for standardized testing is to use test scores to evaluate teachers, even though the “Value Added Measures” have been declared an inaccurate and invalid way of evaluating teachers. And don’t be fooled, when the reformers have succeeded at privatizing a public good, the “private” education they have in mind for your children is nothing like the education their children are getting. To get a glimpse of the vision they have for America’s children, take a look at Michigan’s EAA, which qualifies as an unmitigated educational disaster.

Do America’s children need standardized tests? No. They need highly qualified teachers and safe, well-funded schools where they can learn through participation, play, projects, presentations, and performances. As they have throughout human history, the human beings who teach the children are the best qualified to assess the learning of their students, through the methods that work best for the students and the  situation at hand.

My sons are grown now, but if they were school age, I would stand up for their rights as children to learn in a low-stakes environment from a highly-qualified teacher. I would use the sample letter from United Opt Out to let their school know that my sons would not be taking ANY standardized tests, and that I would want them to spend the time they would have spent testing on reading or working on projects that are relevant and engaging. When they reached the age of college application, we would research the options, and IF they wanted to attend a college that required the ACT or SAT for admission, THEN they would take it. They would not spend 13 years of school taking standardized tests to prepare for a few hours of testing. And if they didn’t score well enough to get into that college, they’d look at schools that admit without test scores. Or they’d start at a community college, like I did.

I have been in the classroom for over 20 years, and I believe in children. I believe in teachers. And I believe in learning as a process that happens differently for each and every individual. EVERY child deserves an education that is right for him or her, that gives him or her hundreds of opportunities to demonstrate knowledge and skills and evaluates him or her for growth over time. The hippie is wrong. Standardized tests are not necessary for students to show learning. A portfolio shows what a student knows, can do, and how s/he has grown over time. It is a much more useful assessment, for the student and the teacher. It can include work from all disciplines, and even be inter-disciplinary. It is a holistic measure of learning, not a snapshot of one day.

John Dewey says it best: “Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.” And dear reader, you may have noticed that LIFE IS NOT STANDARDIZED.

Testing is not teaching. American children deserve schools and teachers that treat them like the unique, individual, human beings they are and that give them meaningful work that allows them to learn valuable lessons about the lives they’re living.

Kids Parade at Holler Fest 2015

Kids Parade at Holler Fest 2015