Equality, Freedom, Education: (5) Standardized Testing and The Emperor’s New Clothes–Part 1

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 of students who were 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 his book.

This topic continues in Equality, Freedom, Education: (6) Standardized Testing and The Emperor’s New Clothes–Part 2

BLOGGER’S NOTES:

This is the fifth of several posts that I will be updating and reposting in an attempt to refine and arrange all of my education-related posts in a logical, conceptual order. As always, your comments will be much appreciated.

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* A standardized test is any test (1) requiring all students to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from a 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. Standardized tests were never designed for the purpose of high stakes testing: the U.S. is one of the few nations in the world that uses such tests for this purpose

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