A Conservative Critique of High-Stakes Standardized Testing

Even as more money is being poured into testing-centric education "reform," there may be a space for classical conservatives and certain factions of the left to work together to expose the limits of the current testing ethos to provide a better foundation for the nation's education policies.
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A persistent -- and, I think, powerful -- theme in conservatism is the emphasis upon limits and doubt about the wisdom of centralized actors. One of the strongest pragmatic defenses of the free market is that centralized authority is not efficient enough and wise enough to direct the economic energies of the nation; hence, a diversity of economic actors should make their own, personal economic decisions. Moreover, a mainstream of conservative philosophy from Burke onwards suggests that the richness of a given human society and culture goes beyond mere statistics -- something about the weave of human life resists quantification.

However, a great many "conservatives" ignore these teachings when the topic of education "reform" comes up. Suddenly, a technocratic mania that seems far more a trait of bureaucratic "progressivism" rules. It is no great wonder that the most professedly "progressive" administration in many years should be doubling down on the technocratic tendencies of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind: with its obsession with testing as the verifier of educational success, this reform provides an altar for a managerial elite to engage in a worship of statistics. Requiring that every student eventually be "proficient" in math and reading and stressing perpetual progress toward this goal, No Child Left Behind places increasing numbers of schools in the "failing" category. At the present moment, almost half of US schools are "failing" according to NCLB, even though (by other standardized measures) NCLB failure might not be correlated with a school's academic success. This destiny of failure has given the Obama administration the chance to offer struggling states an escape hatch: agree to certain central government reforms (such as tying teacher employment to student performance on standardized testing) and get a waiver for certain NCLB requirements. So much for conservative principles of decentralization.

President Obama's Race to the Top, while having some good qualities, pushes even further the centralizing, test-driven tendencies of NCLB. It encourages a common national curriculum, could lead to an even more homogenized classroom by incentivizing testing and evaluation on a few subjects, and ties the futures of teachers and schools to student performance on these kinds of tests. Rather than looking at all the richness of the educational opportunity, this kind of educational "reform" boils education down to the thin gruel of performance on standardized testing, with significant limits on the kinds and quality of thinking allowed.

Beyond teaching certain key skills (such as reading) and facts (such as the basic structure of the US government), perhaps one of the most important goals of public education in the United States is to give students the capacity to learn more on their own -- to inspire them with the spark of curiosity and give them an intellectual-methodological foundation on which to build for the future. Standardized testing (at least of the kind that proliferates across America) is incapable of measuring this capacity. Few people, in reminiscing about their education, meditate upon that time they learned that new testing strategy to ace yet another statistical evaluation. Instead, many bring up that teacher who made a connection with them or that lesson that suddenly turned them on to Russian history or that time they finally understood the fundamental theorem of calculus. These moments of insight and human connection also transcend a standardized-testing regime.

I would submit that it is more than mere educational sentimentalism to focus on these aspects of education. Though they cannot be quantified, they are no less valuable because that irreducibility to number. Classical conservatism understands that men and women are not merely breathing numbers (i.e., computer programs) but are living, organic entities. And it is not just that this important spiritual aspect of education transcends statistical measurement. A regime centered on standardized testing can be outright inimical to the pursuit of a higher, creative education by making the classroom a setting for drill-and-kill instruction rather than open-ended inquiry.

The use of technical instruments (such as testing statistics) can be a powerful tool, and I have no interest here in arguing for theoretical Ludditism. But a monomaniacal obsession with testing scores risks making public education a shadow of a Wall Street shell-game. Not only would this obsession pervert the practice of education by causing teachers to teach to the limited standards of the test and eat up valuable classroom time with less valuable test-prep practice. It also would distort the aims of education by causing educators (at both the teaching and administrative levels) to be more concerned with boosting test scores than actually encouraging learning. It is true that we can measure some level of learning and academic accomplishment through standardized testing, but such testing cannot measure everything (or perhaps even most of the important things).

Even as more and more money is being poured into testing-centric education "reform," I think there may be a space for classical conservatives and certain factions of the left to work together to expose the limits of the current testing ethos in order to provide a better foundation for the nation's education policies.

To close, perhaps it might be worthwhile to turn to a suggestion of a (conservative) counternarrative of education:

Our schools partake of our communities, so the broader life challenges facing students do not sit benignly outside the classroom door, waiting for the final bell to ring: instead, they follow students throughout the day. A comprehensive plan for improving student learning must also look to our communities, to see how we can improve them in order to provide a better foundation for our children. A teacher's job does not consist merely of sticking certain haphazard facts into students' heads. It also consists of providing a moral and intellectual example, of provoking curiosity, of attempting to create an environment for a sustained critical discussion. Education, like many other worthwhile things in life, is too valuable to be trusted to the sole protection of bubble sheets...

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