In the first three installments of this series (available here, here and here), I explained some of the many negative effects of mandatory, high-stakes testing.  In this article, I’ll focus on the history of this testing craze and explain why it has very little to do with education.

In this instance, we actually can blame George W. Bush. When he became Governor of Texas, he discovered that Hispanic youngsters were generally not reading as well as white bread kids, and being a can do kind of guy, wanted to do something about it.  Unfortunately, he knew little about education, but quite a bit about business (he has a Harvard master’s degree in business).  In business, if a faulty product rolls off the assembly line, a quality control assessment is done to determine why the product is faulty and how to fix it.  This requires various tests, which produce data.  With accurate data, faults can be identified and fixed.  Problem solved, profit restored.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking applies poorly–if at all–to education. Let’s take the example of manufacturing toasters.  Toasters have no free will. They are under the complete control of those assembling them from start to finish, and if something goes wrong along the way, it’s relatively easy to apply various tests and measures that will produce data, which ideally will reveal the faults and suggest a fix for the problem.

Students, unfortunately for those who love data and the business model, aren’t toasters.  They can prevent those laboring to produce a worthy product from assembling them, in part or in whole.  In fact, if they like, they can jump off the assembly line and run out of the factory.  Data applies to them only if they decide to allow it to apply by participating whole-heartedly in testing–and in becoming educated.

Testing is also inherently anti-conservative, and anti-liberty, for it relies on fiendishly expensive, one-size fits all, top-down, intrusive big-government mandates.  It seizes near-total control of education from local communities and school boards, vesting it in state education bureaucracies and the federal education bureaucracy. Once mandatory, high stakes testing becomes law, virtually every facet of school operations from scheduling, curriculum, extra curricular activities, staffing patterns, parental involvement and even lunch schedules must change to accommodate it.

It also imposes the Lake Woebegon effect.  Lake Woebegon, for those not familiar with Garrision Keillor, is a fictional Midwestern community where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

Let’s say, for example, that the educrats decide, for our own good of course, that along with testing our children must demonstrate a robust level of physical fitness.  They come up with standards and performance goals, and tests to measure the attainment of those standards and goals (just as they do for academic testing):

By 2016, every 15 year old in America will:

(1) Run 100 yards in 10.2 seconds.

(2) Run a mile in 5 minutes.

(3) Bench press 240 pounds.

(4) Dunk a basketball, being allowed to start, running, from the free throw line.

I trust, gentle readers, you recognize this as completely impossible.  The idea that even the minority of 15 year olds would be able to do these four tasks is absurd, so absurd I need not explain why, yet we do just that where education and testing are concerned.

The No Child Left Behind law, which is also in large part the fault of George W. Bush, and which is in large part the impetus for mandatory, high stakes testing, required that by 2014 every child in America would read on grade level.  Fortunately, that law and its many equally absurd mandates has, for all intents and purposes, been quietly waived or otherwise ignored, but for many years, educrats and others steadfastly maintained that not only was it attainable, without it, America was doomed to a twilight of failure and intellectual degradation.

Why is it absurd?  Because there is enormous variability in human beings, diversity, if you will.  The government demands we recognize, even celebrate “diversity” in most facets of human endeavor, yet utterly ignores it where testing is concerned Women are identical to men, all have the same intellectual capacity and ability to learn and perform, there are no racial and cultural differences, and we even pretend that the handicapped have no handicaps, as I explained in Part II. 

For more than a decade, my state–Texas–has demanded that every student take the state tests, even those students who cannot read or write.  I’m not talking about students that can’t read English because English is not their birth language, but students whose intellectual handicaps are so profound they simply can’t read or write.  I know special education teachers that have had to give tests to kids who cannot speak or meaningfully communicate, kids who have the mental capacity of 18 month olds–and I don’t mean normally developing and functioning 18 month olds–even kids so profoundly handicapped they cannot go to the bathroom by themselves, walk, talk, or feed themselves, yet teachers had to pretend they took a state mandated test, just like everyone else.  Indeed, there are some tests for the seriously handicapped that are “ modified,” yet for many of these kids, even the modified tests are akin to asking a three month old to do calculus.

Why would anyone think this a good idea?  Because the point isn’t education, it’s politics, power, money, the production of data, the building of bureaucratic empires and the building of careers on the public dime.

Another dirty little secret the educrats don’t want people to know is that the tests are not indicators of excellence, but of mediocrity.  I’ve no doubt that this is one of the primary reasons they don’t want people seeing or talking about their tests.

As a teacher of English, I know that each year I’ll meet a new group of about 130 students.  I’m fortunate in that my class sizes range from 14-24.  I know it’s much worse elsewhere.  But I’ll need to determine precisely where each of those kids is in intellectual development.  I’ll need to know where they stand in comparison to their peers.  And once I determine that, I’ll need to work to help them–each of them–develop as far as possible on the continuing educational path.  Because I know what a tenth grader should be able to do, I can easily write tests that most of them can pass.  I can also, if I wish, write tests every one of them can pass, or tests that few, if any, can pass.

Now imagine that you are a state educrat, and you must develop a mandatory test every child in the state will take.  You are supposed to be all about “accountability,” and anyone that does not live up to your standards–students, teachers, administrators, schools and school districts–will be punished in various ways that you will determine.  So you hire a company to develop and grade the test, and the first year it is given, lo and behold, only about 53% of the kids in the entire state pass.

As a state educrat, it has been many years since you’ve actually taught children.  In fact, you may have never taught children and know little or nothing about actually educating people.  But you do know about punishment and reward and you love the power you have.  You’ve already spent millions of other people’s money advertising the test as “academically rigorous,” and you’ve blathered on and on about how the test will build the future, and ensure American dominance in business and the world, and how it will eliminate hangnails, make everyone pretty, and cause them to lose 20 pounds.

Now you have a problem.  What happened?  Are 47% of the kids in the state just stupid? Did all those teachers whose kids passed the previous test in the high 90′s suddenly get dumb?  Or did the company writing the test screw up?  Did they take your PR about academic rigor a little too seriously and write a test that is unrealistically difficult?  You know that for the very idea of one-size-fits-all testing to be viable, every student in the state has to be above average; they all have to be capable of passing the test in the best Lake Woebegonian sense.

If you know anything about education, you know that once teachers figure out-more or less–what the test is going to require and how it will be graded, they’ll be able to increase the scores to the point that say, 76% of the kids will be able to pass.  But you still have a problem.  Because the test has to be top secret, you’re never really going to help teachers figure things out.  You also know that if the legislature figures out you screwed up by telling the company to make tests that are too hard–and thereby wasted millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars–you’re in real trouble.  Too many politicians and educrats have built careers on this public gravy train, and any admission that this particular high speed testing train should never have left the station is going to have grave consequences when the public figures out what you’ve been up to with their money.

Even in an Obamian age of only rhetorical individual responsibility for politicians and bureaucrats, the public will put up with only so much deception and corruption.

So you’re going to do the only thing you can.  You’re going to tell the testing company to dumb down the test so that virtually every kid in the state can pass it.  In doing this, you’re relying on all of the consequences you’ve imposed on schools and teachers if students aren’t all above average.  You’re going to lie.  You’re going to continue to spread the fiction that all the teachers have to do for their kids to pass the test is teach the state standards, but you know they’re going to have to spend months, even entire years, teaching to the test.

What this means in the classroom is the smartest kids will spend months bored to death, learning little or nothing.  Most of the kids, the average, will learn how to pass the test, but will spend somewhat less time being bored senseless, and will learn far, far less than they could if education was the point.  And the kids who need months of repetitious drill will get that drill, and will pass tests they could not have otherwise passed.  Of course, they’ll graduate from high school knowing mostly how to pass those specific tests and little else.  But the education bureaucracy will continue to grow and amass political power, making it highly unlikely anyone will ever be able to reduce its budget or size–some will even get bonuses for their excellence(!?)–and politicians who built careers on “doing something about education” will continue to do something to citizens and their children.

But aren’t high stakes, mandatory tests good for something?  That depends upon your point of view and how much of other people’s money you’re willing to spend.  They’re great for educrats and politicians.  For teachers, they’re good for nothing.  Remember that these tests produce nothing more than a single test score, one bit of data.  If the test was properly designed and written, that bit of data might indicate some degree of mastery of some material.

Educrats and politicians will tell you that the data is enormously valuable because it allows everyone to compare the performance of schools, and school districts, and states, and…yeah.  If you’re making toasters, perhaps.  People are a bit more complex.

If we discover that Smithville High School in Smithville has a 87% passing rate on the test, but Jonesburg High School in Jonesburg has a 91% passing rate, of what practical value is that information?  If you believe that single bit of data truly tells us something about the kind of educational opportunity being provided in those schools, you’re probably an educrat or politician.  If you’re a real human being, you know better.  Will you try to sell your home and move to Jonesburg?

There are other factors–human factors–that mean far, far more than any test score. We know beyond any doubt that economically disadvantaged students do more poorly in school than kids from families with better means, and that factor will have a far greater effect on the academic success of a given school.  The same is true for kids who don’t speak, read or write English, come from abusive homes, and a wide variety of other factors.  We know that girls do better than boys in English, and boys tend to do better in math.  We know that Asian kids tend to do better than just about anybody, because culture does matter regardless of what some say.  But testing ignores all of those factors.  It must, if everyone is to be above average, and if everyone is to be able to pass the same test.  Educrats and politicians call this academic rigor or excellence.  I call it deception.

If a given school has poor teachers, can tests fix that?  No.  Can testing throw school board members interested only in enriching themselves or in imposing a specific ideology on children off a school board?  No.  If a teacher’s union has, in essence, taken over a school, and is running it for the benefit of the union, can that be remedied by high stakes testing?  No.  If a school has inadequate financial resources, can testing remedy the situation?  No.  Does the ability to pass a mediocre test in high school equate to college preparedness, or being prepared for the world of work?  No.  In fact, is there any problem a school has that can be solved or even improved by mandatory, high stakes testing? No, but it might provide the illusion of addressing problems some don’t want to the public to see.

The issue is, and will remain, how best to use our educational resources, and here I speak primarily of time, and to a lesser degree, money.  Is the score produced by a single test truly worth months of class time and truckloads of dollars?  Are all local schools truly so incompetent that only the intervention and mandates of state and federal educrats can provide what amounts to a limited and mediocre education–the ability to pass a specific type of test?  Is the solution to every educational problem testing and all that goes with it?

I suspect, that within ten years, the educational fad pendulum will have once again swung the opposite way. That Texans were able to beat back the educrats and reduce the testing load on high school kids from 15 to 5 tests may be an indicator of this trend.   If the trend proves durable, eventually few, if any, will be able to recall why anyone thought mandatory, high-stakes testing a good idea.  However, these fads have costs, and at a time where government is seizing powers it has never been granted and dictating the course of more and more of our lives, the consequences, personally and for society, are greater than ever.

It might be a good idea, for everyone’s sake, if the pendulum swung a bit more rapidly. See you next week for the next article in this series.