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A Culture of Testing

October 12, 2006

The Washington Post is running a series of articles this month on the rise in importance of testing in the U.S. The first piece, published on October 10, was titled: “The Rise of the Testing Culture: As Exam-Takers Get Younger, Some Say Value Is Overblown.” This is recommended reading for anyone interested in the present state of education in America, but especially for those with young children. Here are some salient excerpts:

– “We have become a Test Nation, and the results can determine the course of a student’s life. Some are beginning to question: Is it all too much? Has our obsession with testing pushed students too hard? Just what do tests really tell us?”
– “Along with painting and gluing and coloring and playing, Kisha Lee engages the youngsters in her day-care program in another activity: testing. Three- and 4-year-olds take spelling tests of such words as ‘I,’ ‘me’ and ‘the,’ as well as math tests, from which they learn how to fill in a bubble to mark the right answer. Test preparation for children barely out of diapers is hardly something Lee learned while getting her education degree at the University of Maryland, she said. But it is what she says she must do — for the kids’ sake — based on her past experience teaching in a Prince George’s County elementary school. ‘Kids get tested and labeled as soon as they get into kindergarten,’ said Lee, who runs the state-certified Alternative Preschool Solutions in Accokeek. ‘They have to pass a standardized test from the second they get in. I saw kindergartners who weren’t used to taking a test, and they fell apart, crying, saying they couldn’t do it. The child who can sit and answer the questions correctly is identified as talented,’ Lee said. ‘It hurts me to have to do this, but it hurts the kids if I don’t.’ Lee’s approach underscores the culture of testing that reigns in the United States. Americans like tests so much that they have structured society around them.”
– “Four-year-olds are tested in literacy and math in Head Start programs, and kindergartners undergo tests to see who is ‘gifted.’ By then, they are firmly ensconced on the testing treadmill. ‘We are obsessed with tests,’ said Occidental University education professor Ron Solorzano, who used to teach in Los Angeles public schools. ‘We are pretty much preparing [kids] for the SAT at the age of 6,’ added Solorzano.”
– “Americans embrace tests because they are entranced with objectivity — or at least the appearance of it, experts say. ‘Merely having a number associated with something makes it sound worthwhile, even if the number isn’t all that valid,’ said Robert J. Sternberg, dean of Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and former president of the American Psychological Association.”
– Although U.S. students have never been strangers to tests, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative has revolutionized the process. Implemented in 2003, the law seeks to hold schools accountable for results. It not only added a national mandate for testing, but also raised the stakes higher than ever. A single test today can determine grade promotion or high school graduation, a teacher’s salary or a principal’s job. Proponents say standardized tests are the best objective tool to hold teachers and schools accountable; opponents argue that the tests prove nothing more than that some kids are better at taking tests than others.”
– “The testing culture ‘has a lot more momentum than it should,’ agreed Harvard University education professor Daniel Koretz, an expert on assessment and measurement. He said a lack of solid research on the results of the new testing regimen — or those that predated No Child Left Behind — essentially means that the country is experimenting with its young people. Tests, experts say, also serve as self-fulfilling prophecies; the most elite schools accept only students with top scores and then brag that it is these students who do well. The current craze of ranking schools also perpetuates the importance of tests, they say.”
– Ask students what they think about standardized tests and many agree with Leah Zipperstein, a junior at Colorado College. She said she remembers her teachers in Cincinnati spending weeks in middle and high school helping kids practice to pass the tests rather than teaching something more substantive.”
– “Standardized tests also don’t measure values or attitude, said Daniel Chambliss, a sociology professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. ‘Tests measure very narrow kinds of things under very specific circumstances,’ he said. ‘And real life doesn’t work that way.'”
– “Some polls indicate that a majority of Americans are growing dubious of high-stakes standardized tests; three of the major gubernatorial candidates in Texas, for example, want to de-emphasize the state’s high-stakes exam. Still, nobody expects tests to go away; in fact, the latest wrinkle in the debate is about a national test that would supplant the state and systemwide tests now given.”

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So, are you scared yet? I am. I should clarify that I’m not against measuring results. Students do separate themselves from each other with their work, and this work comes out in measurable, testable ways. What worries me, and what is evident in this piece, is the way in which testing seems to be overshadowing other viable ways to demonstrate learning, as well as the lower ages at which testing begins. Should our four and five-year olds be crying over tests? Should they be tracked into gifted courses at the age of five? What about late bloomers? What about boys, who are notorious for not exhibiting their intellectual gifts until later?

The larger, philosophical concerns are empiricism, capitalism, and objectivity. Efficiency demands a system, and systems demand categorization. Efficient systems ignore spikes – the exceptions to smooth bell curves. Are we a society, then, that doesn’t tolerate eccentricity and “non-normals,” that tolerates nothing but a smooth curve? The answer seems to be yes, but does our intolerance have to be so pervasive? Does it have to reach children at such an early age? – TL

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