Standardized Testing and The Emperor’s New Clothes

As Boomers during our school years, we were tested every year using standardized tests.* The apparent reason was that politicians and reporters were interested in a way to keep score and to compare schools (for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, cocktail party bragging rights). Toward the end of the 1950s, educators began to use standardized test results, as well as IQ scores, to “track” us. Those of you who were in 6th grade at Highland Park Elementary School in 1959-60 will recall Mr. Starr’s class in the library, and then our assignments into 7-1, 7-2 and other like designated sections in 7th grade at West Shore Junior High School.

It took a decade of research to verify that tracking was beneficial to those 20% or so students assigned to the “accelerated” tracks; however, tracking was statistically detrimental to the 80% of the students in non-accelerated sections; nonetheless, tracking continued in the face of the evidence. Why?

1) The parents of “accelerated” students tend to have disproportionate power in communities, power those parents wield to benefit their kids.

2) Very few educators, and almost no parents, reporters or politicians know that standardized tests are more highly correlated with socio-economic factors than they are with what students have actually been taught.

3) American Educators during the four-plus-decades-long purview of my non-scientific sample of one have shown a broad disregard for the findings of educational research, I suppose because of this profound observation made in 1913 by Francis Cummins Lockwood:

We must review with profound respect the infinite capacity of the human mind to resist the introduction of useful knowledge.

As a child, my favorite fable was Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Here is the ending as translated by Jean Hersholt:

…Everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!” Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.

“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

I suppose I was in the second grade when the fable was read to me, but even at that age, the fable made me aware that children can have great power if they are honest, and equally important, I was provided with an insight (not having yet been introduced to Cummins’ wisdom) that adults, especially important and powerful adults, are willing to go along with something preposterous because they are afraid to be the “only one” to stand up for a truth—especially if they had been outspoken in supporting something very questionable.

In the 1990s, there were adults, as brave as the little child in the day of the Emperor, who cried out, “the use of standardized test results for high-stakes decisions in Education is ill-advised!” Unfortunately, the great and powerful policy-makers of the land—convinced that fear of embarrassment of poor student performance on standardized tests would coerce educators into teaching to standards—ignored the voices of truth. And the “whole town,” or nearly so, seemed to go along.

In the September 27, 2000, edition of Education Week, a piece by Alfie Kohn was published: Standardized Testing and Its Victims. If you are concerned about the role of standardized testing in our schools, I believe you will find reading Kohn’s article to be a very provocative and productive use of 10 minutes of your time; further, Mr. Kohn has reminded me via email that the article is a brief adaptation of his book: The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. He encourages anyone who is interested in a more comprehensive treatment of the issue to refer to the book.

Standardized testing remains a topic of conversation decades after it’s use was first advocated for, and subsequently condemned in the media and elsewhere. Likely because of the DeVos family’s and Koch brother’s focus on replacing traditional public education with capitalism-based education, which has been exacerbating, bit by sneaky bit, the problem of disadvantaged kids having diminished opportunities for a viable future, the question, What do you think of standardized testing?” had been supplanted by What do you think of charter schools? as the most frequent question asked of me at social gatherings, before I began, in my shame, to distance myself from having been a part of failed educational systems responsible for the ignorance millions of Americans have been displaying for the world to see over the past five years.

Recently, I read a Facebook post that caused me to reconsider my silence on the use of standardized testing in high stakes decision making and caused me to recall Kohn’s article. Almost twenty years ago, the article revealed the naked truth about standardized testing. And he was not alone. In 2000, I found his thoughts to be aligned with those I had encountered in the 1990’s by reading, speaking with, or listening to James Popham, Bob Marzano, Rick Stiggins, Fenwick English, Doug Reeves and other prominent educational thinkers. In my opinion, Kohn did a masterful job of distilling the matter down to its essential truths, i.e. he provided the most concise description of the naked and problematic reality of standardized testing.

Here are key facts from Kohn’s article that every parent, policy maker, educator and taxpayer should know:

Fact 1. “Our children are tested to an extent that is unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere else in the world … Few countries use standardized tests for children below high school age—or multiple-choice tests for students of any age.”

Fact 2. “Non-instructional factors explain most of the variance among test scores when schools or districts are compared … four such variables (are the) number of parents living at home, parents’ educational background, type of community, and poverty rate …”

Fact 3. “Norm-referenced (standardized) tests were never intended to measure the quality of learning or teaching … The main objective of these tests is to rank, not to rate … not to gauge the quality of a given student or school.”

Fact 4. “Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking … as a rule, it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.”

Fact 5. “Virtually all specialists condemn the practice of giving standardized tests to children younger than 8 or 9 years old.”

Fact 6. “Virtually all relevant experts and organizations condemn the practice of basing important decisions, such as graduation or promotion, on the results of a single test.”

Fact 7. “The time, energy, and money that are being devoted to preparing students for standardized tests have to come from somewhere … Anyone who doubts the scope and significance of what is being sacrificed in the desperate quest to raise scores has not been inside a school lately.”

Fact 8. “Many educators are leaving the field because of what is being done to schools in the name of ‘accountability’ and ‘tougher standards’ … Prospective teachers are rethinking whether they want to begin a career in which high test scores matter most.”

One final contribution from Kohn’s article is a quote from then Senator Paul Wellstone (Democrat, Minnesota); I offer it here because I think it still rings true:

Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker, and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, high-stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity.

There is an additional, conceptual problem I have with the use of standardized testing. For six years, I was an assessment specialist in a Delaware school district, and in that role I oversaw the development of proprietary, end-of-course exams for high schools in the district. The underlying principle behind these exams was …

THE SORTING OR RANKING OF STUDENTS IS CONTRARY TO THE PRINCIPLES OF STANDARDS-BASED EDUCATION!

Standards are written descriptions of what all students should know and/or be able to do. Teachers for several years have been expected—by statute—to design instruction that leads all students to mastery of designated standards. The problem facing educators and policy makers is that the assessments needed to determine mastery do not lend themselves to sophisticated statistical analysis, but standardized tests do. That’s the rub.

In addition, the most important standards are those related to critical and other higher forms of thinking, and assessing mastery of higher order thinking and essential skills requires opportunities for students to explain or demonstrate their mastery of these standards. As someone who has written test items for a testing company, I can tell you that it is impossible for a student to “explain” or “demonstrate” anything by answering a multiple choice question. Choosing one of four or five options does not constitute an explanation or a demonstration of mastery. Explaining is an action that a student must take to make clear to an assessor his or her mastery of an idea, a solution, or a problem. Demonstrating mastery involves actually performing the skills that a student is expected to be able to do.

Written (or oral) assessments and performance tasks are employed in effective standards-based classrooms by teachers who understand the importance of aligning instruction and assessment with designated standards, but the cost associated with the process of statistically analyzing thousands of written student responses and actual performances for dozens and dozens of standards is prohibitive for state departments of education.

It is sad to say, but cost is one reason our children are being subjected to the burden of high stakes testing in their current form. Another reason is the unforgivable ignorance of too many policy makers who do not understand the incongruity of using tests in a standards-based educational environment that are designed to sort and rank students.

A third reason is the understandable unfamiliarity of taxpayers with the inappropriateness of making high stakes decisions using standardized tests designed to rank and sort students, and in a social context (as in the fairy tale and in English Common Law), silence can and is often interpreted as consent.

It is not known how long it took for “the whole town” in Anderson’s fable to cry out, “but he hasn’t got anything on!” I do know that it has been twenty years since Kohn’s article was published in one of the most well-read of educational periodicals, and I remain astonished that relatively few have heard his cry. Perhaps it is coming. For the sake of our children—especially disadvantaged children of color—it is time for “the whole town” to cry out:

“Current policies requiring that standardized testing be used for evaluating individual teachers, students and schools is unsound and harmful to all and is especially hurtful to students who need our help the most!”

*standardized test is any test (1) requiring all students to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from common bank of questions, in the same way, as well as (2) being scored in a “standard” way, which makes it possible to compare the relative performance of individual students or groups of students. 

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