Standardized Testing: “Fun” House Mirrors and Distorted Realities

Standardized testing is like “fun house” mirrors. Sure, they cast a “reflection” of the learner being tested, but it’s a grossly distorted reflection of who that student is as a learner or what they know or are capable of learning.
(“Is that what I really what I look like?”)
Now imagine what it does to children’s sense of identity or self- worth as learners (as well as the self worth of the teachers) when such policies insist we make children “see” themselves through this distorted lens, and center their futures around that distorted information and how others will choose to see them.
In the words of United Opt Out organizer Ceresta Smith (original post on Edfly):
Annual testing has netted this result: public school students that sit before high school teachers in a large percentage of classrooms that are resistant to learning because they have acquired little basic foundation skills (were not tested, so were not emphasized) and have learned to skim text only to comply with testing parameters and time limits.  Today, in these contemporary times, students  are so turned off to active engagement in the learning process after being spoon fed benchmark instruction and test prep year after year, that they choose to cheat, borrow, and plagiarize to avoid straining their brains to engage in enough critical and creative thinking to arise at original ideas and responses. It is not their fault.
In lieu of  pedagogy that nurtures, enriches, and stimulates a desire to read, write, discuss, create original works, and learn information that gets stored in long term memory banks; we have turned to outcome based instruction in which far too often basic skills are ignored, carefully crafted schema or background information are not laid in the recesses of their long term memory banks, and standard approaches to test taking that are antithetical to authentic learning are taught in lieu of quality instruction that in most cases can’t be quantified.  As a consequence, reading, thinking deeply, creating original ideas, and arising at original responses are a challenge to far too many, particularly those that have suffered under mandated”sanctions” that double down on the benchmark instruction and test prep. Moreover, students who seem like genuine intellects based on test scores and grade point averages, struggle to catch up on campuses from  Ivy League institutions to the online colleges for profit because of the pedagogical neglect facilitated by state and federal legislation.  Additionally, far too many students suffer a reproachful invalidation early in life that serves to govern much of what  they do for the rest of their elementary and secondary school years.  Some recover; far too many do not.
Classroom teachers are daily witness to what goes on inside the classrooms because we are in them working with the students. We are the real experts, and we want to get back to creative and innovative teaching and learning that validates as opposed to invalidates. Outcome based instruction and annual testing have netted the same results year after year – no significant improvement in literacy, intellectual, civic, or creative prowess for public school students. We have come to realize over the course of more than fifteen years that constantly pushing outcome based instruction and annual testing is a costly waste of time and has done major harm to America’s public school students and their ability to love, appreciate, and engage in the learning process. Allow NAPE to do what it does, gather the data, and allow teachers to teach!
And yet, despite all these facts, we remain a society that feels compelled to ask, “But if we don’t have the tests, how will we 1) ensure good teaching, 2) know what children have learned 3) guarantee quality services?” There is a myriad of answers to those questions, but the short answer is simply that a distorted biased and unreliable “measure” is not an answer.  According to Paul Thomas, “Instead of chasing ‘better tests,’ we must admit standardized tests are flawed mechanisms for creating equity.” He adds, “In short, from the SAT and ACT to PARCC, I would argue, high-stakes tests perpetuate and even create inequity.”
As Sen Lamar Alexander and Patti Murray deliberate on the re-authorization of ESEA (aka No Child Left Behind) they claim this bill calls for a reduction in standardized testing and the elimination of federal oversight.  And yet… if the standardized tests, like the fun house mirrors, are all distorted and inaccurate, then having fewer of them, controlled at the state level,  changes nothing about the larger ideological assumption that standardized testing has any value. It doesn’t. So why have any? If you want an image that accurately reflects a person, you cannot use a distorted mirror to do that. Fewer tests are not more accurate tests, they are just fewer bad measurements.  Additionally, the language of Alexander’s bill suggests that the states CAN add more testing beyond the stated grade-span tests if they so choose. Given the corrupt partnerships between state legislators and governors and private corporate interests like Pearson, it’s a safe bet that state-level testing policy will more accurately serve their interests (profitable partnerships)than those of the students and teachers.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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