Punitive Standardized Testing Produces Unstandardized Schools

Parents, teachers and administrators are screaming “enough is enough.”  The revolt against standardized testing is growing as the funds federal and state officials allocate to develop new tests continues to grow.

“More teaching, less testing.”

“One, two, three, four…Kids are not a test score.”

Hundreds of parents and children chanted these statements outside the New York City offices of Pearson Education, a division of Pearson Plc, the nation’s biggest testing company. Pearson’s North American education division reported sales of $4.03 billion last year with an operating profit up 5 percent from 2010. 

Standardized testing has become a multi-billion dollar industry with companies wielding power and millions to lobby for more and more testing.

The arguments for standardized testing are plausible. We can empirically measure student growth. We can now bypass the best students, historically put out front for show, and truly view the breadth of a school’s students.  We can have another indicator of the performance of the teacher. Yet, I am still not convinced that humans can be objectively and quantitatively measured. I am still not convinced a third party you and I do not know, who probably had very different life experiences and outlooks from us, can create a test for you and I that would accurately determine who is keener.  That is why I try not to give tests in my classes.

More than 500 Texas school boards and Broward County, Fla. have reduced their focus on standardized tests in recent years. John Kuhn, the superintendent of a small school district in north Texas, reminisced when testing was about discovering and addressing the needs of students.

Now it is purely about judging—judging students, teachers, schools, and districts.  “It’s no longer really diagnostic. It’s punitive,” he told Reuters. “That’s all it is.”

We all know what happens to students if they score poorly. We are beginning to see what happens to teachers, schools, and districts when their kids score poorly. With money and prestige flowing to the better performing schools in most areas, inequities only grow.

Even as I have serious questions about standardized tests—and no bigger than the SAT that consistently indicates solely the wealth of the students’ parents—I can see some value in them in a different type of society. Standardized testing simply does not work in our society with an unstandardized assortment of schools. As the public school—the standard American school, which as we know has rarely ever been standard—continues to be hauled into history, educational reformers are hauling the supposedly unstandardized charter school into the future with standardized testing on its heels. 

Students in vastly different schools are taking the same tests, which to me is and has always been incredibly unfair. Students in classrooms with 30 students and one teacher are taking a similar test as the student in a classroom with 15 students and two teachers. Students with sophisticated preparatory mechanisms are taking a similar test than a student with basic modes of preparation. 

Instead of providing equity, standardized testing furthers inequities. We have this irresponsible assumption of equality, and thus if students in a class, school or district performs poorly, then the students, teachers and administrators should be punished. We punish them into meeting the standard. They are not good students, not good teachers, not good administrators. They need to work harder. 

Without question, there are some poor students, teachers and administrators who need to be pushed to work harder and be better at their craft. However, we are fighting a losing battle if we really think that is the answer. And we are misinformed if we really think that is the principal reason for the range of scores. The range of scores is a result of the range of the quality of schools. The range of scores is a result of a range of the quality of the students’ socio-economic communities. The range of scores is a result of a range of socio-cultural familiarity with the tests. The range of scores is a result of a range of expectations and privileges.

I do have a problem with standardized tests, particularly their role in the college admissions process.  But I have an even greater problem with standardized tests in unstandardized K-12 schools. Schools should not be punished for poor scores. That should be an indication we need to invest more and more in those schools until they meet our standard. If anything in our society, standardized tests should be used to standardize the schools. 

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at University at Albany, SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.