Anything But Standard: How Standardized Tests Diminish Learning (Part 1)

In a city in Northern California, teachers in the district’s poorest public school anxiously prepare each year to give California’s own STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) test to their students. These students hail from predominantly Hispanic families, many of whom have just arrived in the country and are living in the city’s poorest neighborhood.

Gang violence, complicated family situations, a language barrier and serious poverty are the daily challenges being met by these elementary school children. They come to school in winter without coats on, their hand-me-down pants often tied shut with lengths of rope, their shoes falling apart as they run across the playground. Their teachers, predominantly middle class Caucasians who don’t speak Spanish, are upset about the epidemic of head lice in the school, but funding for a school nurse was cut years ago. There is no school counselor, either.

Music and art programs are distantly remembered luxuries of the past. Most of all, the teachers of this school are tired of being scorned and punished by the state government for the school’s history of poor performance in standardized testing. Every one of them puts in a hard day’s grind, year after year, and it would be great, just for once, to get those rewards held out as an incentive for high performing schools.

The teachers know their students are hungry. They fight over the few leftover school lunches that the monitor passes out at the end of lunchtime. It’s hard to keep the children from taking home spoiled food to share with their families. So, on test days, the school makes an unusual effort to try to extract higher test scores from the student body. They feed the children a snack in the morning. Maybe, just maybe, if the kids aren’t hungry, they’ll be able to meet those multiple choice questions with clearer heads and win praise from the state government and perks for the staff.

The above anecdote, if shocking, is 100% true. Dr. Maria Montessori devoted herself to children from strikingly similar circumstances in her first Casa dei Bambini in the slums of 20th century Italy. Her students were the poorest of the poor, and far from determining that it was in their best interests to be categorized and graded, she decided that the children needed to be cared for, respected and observed as they made efforts to discover themselves and their own abilities. Dr. Montessori believed that the natural human drive to absorb was enough to make learning happen and that rewards and punishments were not only unnecessary, but actually harmful to the development of the human intellect.

Ironically, today’s public school teachers find themselves in exactly the position from which Montessori worked to protect her students. If the school does well in one of the many standardized tests given all over the world, teachers are given rewards such as monetary prizes and extracurricular programs. If the school ranks low, funding is cut and the reputation of the school is a shameful one in the public eye. The intense competitiveness of this atmosphere creates a situation that puts the goals of politicians and education committees first and the needs of the children last.

What Is The True Purpose of Standardized Testing?

According to author and New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto, “Standardized tests measure the degree of obedience obtained by individual students. They pretty much rank every kid in the nation from first to last.” Gatto asserts that the purpose of public school education and standardized testing is to turn out standardized minds that are useful in their ability to follow orders in a kind of pyramid scheme where everyone at the bottom is dependent upon the expertise of the few at the top rather than on their own judgment and process of analysis – a system seen in miniature in the focus of traditional classrooms being on the ‘expert’ teacher rather than the students. As Gatto puts it,

“Schools don’t teach the way children learn. Children learn by observation, experience, trial and error and involvement, not by confinement and thin abstractions.”

If the words observation, experience, trial and error, involvement have a familiar ring to them, it is because these are some of the most basic principles of the Montessori method. Unsurprisingly, many Montessori instructors find standardized testing to be completely antithetical to Montessori philosophy, yet concerned parents may want and insist upon some proof that the child is meeting goals that are on par with a norm. Additionally, a Montessori program may be legally required to administer standardized testing, particularly if it is being held in a public or charter school. The problem these needs present is that, too often, the important questions that should precede any type of academic assessment aren’t being asked.

“What is the purpose of the assessment?” asks Bob Peterson of Rethinking Schools. “Is this purpose worthy or meaningful? Answering these questions means addressing what is important for students to learn, how we help them learn, and how we know what they have learned.”

A worthy purpose might be to help students and teachers understand and improve the way they are spending their time in the classroom, but if the purpose is simply to assign numbers and offer proofs to taxpayers that funds are being wisely spent, it is little wonder that child-oriented educators see small value in standardized testing. One of the main criticisms of standardized testing is that no meaningful feedback is given to the teacher, the parent or the child once a test is over. The data collected is not assessed or utilized to make improvements in school methodology or curriculum.

In point of fact, the RAND Corporation, an independent think tank, have failed to prove that pressuring students to achieve higher test scores correlates to any measurable improvement in their general habits of learning or skill acquisition. In other words, standardized testing is happening in a vacuum, and one that is expensive, time consuming for the schools and potentially damaging to the spirit of the child who has been assigned an arbitrary grade. The fact that newspapers run headlines to the tune of 4th Graders Fail To Meet Math Standards, continues to promote a public belief that poorly-understood standards must be met or something wrong must be happening.

In a recently conducted study, the Regents Board of New York administered standardized testing with the following components:

1) The State gave out study guides for an exam in an effort to show students how to score more highly on the exam.

2) Schools were warned that rewards and punishments would be given based on school performance in the exam.

3) Schools were informed that the grade given to each school would be made publicly known.

The study found the following results from this experiment:

1) Test scores were higher.

2) Enrichment-oriented and exam-irrelevant programs were driven out of the curriculum, no matter how successful such programs were. Teachers reported a loss of enthusiasm in the classroom.

3) School dropout rates escalated. (Emphasis mine).

This data would indicate that, while it is possible to elicit ever higher test scores from students, it is being done at the expense of the very things that the children are interested in learning.

There’s a lot more to say about this fascinating subject, but I just couldn’t fit it all into one post. Check out the second part of this series: How To Find Your Way Through the Standardized Testing Dilemma.