Standardizing Our Way to Mediocrity

As more pressure is placed on doing well on tests, more children lose interest in learning because they are unable to connect the reasons for learning to anything meaningful in their own lives. – Jenifer Fox, Your Child’s Strengths


The first use of standardized testing in public schools in the US occurred during World War I when IQ tests were administered. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 requires standardized testing in public schools. In 2001 Congress passed US Public Law 107-110, known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 which further tied public school funding to standardized testing results. The list of standardized tests administered by states to measure academic achievement in elementary, middle and senior high school continues to grow. These tests are in addition to other tests students must pass to enter college (e.g. the ACT and SAT). The provenance for the latest round of standardized testing can be found in a report, A Nation at Risk, published in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The reports concluded:

Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.

sputnikThe report echoed the earlier panic that ensued following the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik in 1957. As it turned out, the fact that the US missed beating the Soviets to the first satellite launch had more to do with poor judgment by the Eisenhower administration about which of the competing technologies to back than to the nation’s educational readiness. America went on to dominate the space race.

In the mid 1980s, the primary competitive threat seemed to be Japan and to a smaller extent Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. US firms faced major challenges from Japanese manufacturers of cars and memory chips and watched in frustration as these foreign competitors captured substantial market share. American manufacturers responded with a new focus on quality and efficiency. This competitive urgency accelerated the transition of the American manufacturing from a labor intensive to a knowledge intensive endeavor.

cargo shipMuch the same process happened with American agriculture during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Routine manufacturing work is being automated or sent offshore; the same is true in Japan and other developed nations. Although the value of manufactured goods in America has grown substantially, the number of employees needed to make those goods continues to plummet. And in those industries where labor is still required, companies seek the lowest price. Again, these factors had little to do with students’ test scores or how much homework we assigned. It had everything to do with the US waking up to the realities of a new global economy. And Japan? Despite its seeming invincibility in the early 1980′s, the country has suffered through a long period of stagnation.

In both cases, a call for more standardization and testing in our educational system was misguided.

standardized testA standardized test, based on standardized curricula, administered in factory like environments is backward looking at best. The notion of forcing kids into a standardization straitjacket is antithetical to the kind of creativity and collaboration companies are seeking today. Below are reasons often given in support of standardized testing and the arguments against using them.

  • Establishing minimum competence in certain fields of study – Most standardized testing based on simple recall of facts. Often, the tests don’t match up well with the curriculum in schools. Also, students and teachers can learn to “game” the system by practicing for these tests or devising strategies to get the highest score with the least effort.
  • Providing some consistent measurement of progress – Measurement can be misleading if the knowledge being measured is out of date or irrelevant, or if the test is biased to favor certain learning styles over others.
  • Acting as a screening mechanism for advancement to the next grade level or to college – This type of high stakes standardized testing can have negative emotional effects on both students and teachers. After doing poorly on a test, low-achieving students often become disillusioned and less motivated, which leads to decreased desire to learn and starts downward spiral that can be very hard to halt.

In a global economy that values creativity and adaptability, no amount of standardized testing will make us more competitive or more able to deal with a fast changing, complex world.

  1. Just Some Guy Reply

    Dead-on. This process, while not without merits, serves more than anything to ‘flatten’ an inherently diverse world into a grey goo that doesn’t even provide what our society needs.

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