"Juggernaut:" the Standardized Test

Sunday, 06 February 2011 13:06 By Marion Brady, The Washington Post | Op-Ed | name.

Picture a huge, ancient chariot being pulled through narrow city streets, carrying a crude idol of a god. So massive is the chariot, citizens are crushed under its wooden wheels.

The current education-change experiment, begun in the 1980s at the urging of corporate America, is a juggernaut. The god it carries is The Standardized Test.

On board the chariot, surrounding the god and enthusiastically waving the standards and accountability banner, are the president of the United States; the secretary of education; nearly all the governors of the 50 states; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the Business Roundtable; the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations; hedge fund managers; publishers of test and test prep materials; a few big-city mayors; and celebrities such as Michelle Rhee, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeb Bush.

The chariot riders , true believers, take it for granted that learning isn’t a natural act, that it happens only under threat, and that high-stakes, standardized tests provide that necessary threat. Their money, name recognition, political power, public relations skills, and easy access to the mainstream media, are used to steadily increase the number of worshipers of the Standardized Test God.

But the chariot has stalled, so questions must be asked.

And of those questions, the most important one for America is this: Can standardized tests measure “higher order” thinking skills—measure not merely memory of something read or heard, but measure student ability to infer, categorize, hypothesize, generalize, synthesize, value, create, and so on?

In short, can machine-scored test questions attach useful, meaningful numbers or letter grades indicating the quality of the complex thought processes upon which our survival and success depend?

Most educators say “No.”

But federal education policymakers say “Yes,” and have handed near-absolute power to the Standardized Test God. It’s fair, then, to ask them to explain and defend their action to educators whose agreement and cooperation they need if the chariot is to move on.

Establishing a reasonable schedule for a public exchange of views on the issue is appropriate and necessary. Here’s how that can be made to happen:

For four days, between July 28 —31, anti-standardized test educators from across America will meet in Washington, D.C. to stage a protest.

At least two weeks before they arrive, the U.S. Department of Education should post ten illustrative or model questions on its website, two each for five different “higher order” thought processes of their choosing. The ten questions, when answered, will produce numbers that compare a particular test-taker’s performance with that of all others answering the question dealing with that particular thinking skill.

On the website, following each question, provision should be made for dialogue—for a conversation between experienced educators and policymakers in Washington.

To set wise policy, out of that dialog must come a clear answer. Can machine-scored standardized tests measure human thought processes precisely enough to allow standardized tests to shape America’s future ? Yes, or no?

The ten model questions posted by the USDOE should meet two criteria.

First, they must be 100 % machine scoreable and reliable. This is essential, for sooner or later, taxpayers will want to know why they’re paying billions of dollars to corporations to score single examples of school work (work taxpayers will rarely or never see), when those same taxpayers have already paid teachers to score a far richer and more visible stream of work?

Second, each USDOE sample questions must yield a useful, meaningful score. It must say, for example, that in a practical, real-world situation—a situation familiar to the test taker—the test-taker-taker’s inference, hypothesis, generalization, value judgment or other complex thought process deserves an “8” rather than a “7,” a “9,” or some other score.

At a meeting I attended on Aug. 2, 2008, in Titusville, Florida, prior to his election, President Obama recognized me, asked about my more than five decades of teaching experience, and accepted my question about his future administration’s openness to the input of experienced educators on matters of education policy.

To his credit, he didn’t promise me that such would be the case; his answer came later when, to the great disappointment of many educators, he chose the cliché-prone Arne Duncan to head the Department of Education.

After the election, in a much smaller meeting with Secretary Duncan near Orlando, Florida, my raised hand went unacknowledged, but the secretary said that, although present standardized tests were flawed and in need of major improvement, there would be more of them.

Any trace of logic in that policy escapes me. Why are billions of dollars being spent to buy and administer tests the Secretary admits are flawed? What purpose is served by numbers and rankings that yield no reliable, useful information?

I agree with the late, highly respected paleontologist, biologist and historian Stephen Jay Gould who near the end of his book, "The Mismeasure of Man," summed up what everyone who’s given more than a moment’s thought to the matter knows: “Human uniqueness lies in the flexibility of what our brains can do. What is intelligence, if not the ability to face problems in an unprogrammed manner?”

The situation calls for action. Now. Students, strongly supported by their teachers, parents, grandparents, and all others who care about the future of education and America, should join The Bartleby Project initiated in 2008 by John Taylor Gatto.

Serious students, strongly supported by their teachers, parents, grandparents, and all others who care about the human condition, should join the Bartleby Project initiated in 2008 by John Taylor Gatto.

In an afterward to his book, "Weapons of Mass Instruction," Gatto invites readers to join him in what he calls “an open conspiracy” to destroy the standardized testing industry.www.newsociety.com/titleimages/TI004012_OI001098_23.pdf

If destroying the standardized testing industry sounds like an extreme action, you don’t understand the problem.

Gatto’s argument can be accessed at: http://www.newsociety.com/titleimages/TI004012_OI001098_23.pdf

Marion Brady

Marion Brady began a career in education in 1952 teaching in a semi-rural high school in northeastern Ohio. Since then he has taught at every level from 6th grade through the university, been a county-level school administrator, publisher consultant, teacher educator, textbook author, contributor to professional journals, author of professional books, writer of instructional materials, visitor to schools across America and abroad, and long-time education columnist for Knight-Ridder/Tribune.
Last modified on Sunday, 06 February 2011 13:18