Educating for Democracy: Why Tests "Fail"

Yesterday NYC public school chancellor Joel Klein announced that the granting of tenure to new teachers will depend largely on the outcome of their students' test scores as well as classroom observation. In this time of a crisis in education in which the Powers that Be, both locally and nationally, seem to be moving in a direction that will totally wreck an already failing educational system, I would like to point out an inconvenient fact that I'm sure will be disputed: "Tests Fail."

I am not saying that all tests fail to accomplish what they intend to for a particular group of people at a particular time in a particular place: I am saying that using tests, as in standardized tests, whether to determine a young learner's reading knowledge in third grade or a high school senior's performance on a Regents exam is not only a very inexact way of determining what someone has really "learned"; it is often more harmful and destructive than helpful.

I write this as someone who generally did very well on tests whether in elementary, high school, college or graduate school. I actually "liked" to take most of my tests. That is in certain subjects like English and history and music. But I did not enjoy taking tests in algebra or geometry or, when it was still an all-college requirement in many schools, calculus.

I would become anxious the day before the test and by the time the moment arrived, I was confused and had to exercise a great deal of self-control not to burst into tears when confronted with a theorem I had been certain I knew the night before only to find my mind as blank as if I were trying to read Finnish.

The most destructive aspect to standardized testing is that it expects a young learner to remember a great many unconnected facts. Teachers often are forced to present these facts in a manner which has no relationship to the way students "learn" in their everyday lives, and it requires the test-takers to spew out the answer within a certain set amount of time. And if you've ever had a "memory slip," forgetting a name or date or place that, five minutes or an hour later you were able to remember, you can imagine how often this happens to especially young students under the pressure of time. When the tests are "high-stakes" and the outcome can determine whether the child is labeled "smart" or "a dummy," the pressure is even greater.

I have talked to a number of colleagues and specialists on this issue and some of them assure me that standardized tests are a more accurate way of determining a student's understanding of the material they are studying than any alternative. Yet there are many other ways of doing so such as the STARS program in Nebraska (Student-based and Teacher-Led Assessment and Reporting System) which successfully uses portfolios and student interviews to evaluate the progress in their learning. There are many students who, because of such matters as "test phobia," a very disorderly home life, or personal problems that might occur just on the day of the test, perform much less successfully on tests than they would under other circumstances.

Standardized IQ tests which began to be given respectability about one hundred years ago have been used in the past in very destructive ways. In his book about IQ tests, The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould showed how the earliest tests during World War l were misused by Lewis Terman, a noted educator. Gould also records how the data compiled by Cyril Burt, a revered psychologist, were exposed in 1976 as based either on deliberately fraudulent or certainly inaccurate tests.

Terman's tests were particularly damaging since they were used to limit immigration quotas in the 1920s that prevented hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe from coming to America. The results of those tests, which were poorly administered and often included recent immigrants who did not speak English, "proved" that among the groups with the lowest intelligence were Eastern European Jews while the "smartest" group of people were of Northern European descent. Thus, standardized tests have been shown often to have political and cultural objectives, not only in the way they are administered, but in the way they have been misused as in NYC.

I realize that it's not that simple to determine how well a child is learning unless there are ways of evaluating what they know. But I would use a more comprehensive method of determining the success or failure of a student than what is presently employed which, in my opinion has had, certainly in NYC, very destructive results.

1. Do students understand what they are learning? That is, do they know the significance of the information or formulas, or dates and places that they are required to know so that they feel it is important to spend the time and effort to really learn them?

2. Are students able to retain what they have learned from one semester to the next? All too often valuable class time is spent "reviewing" what students should already know from several weeks before even if they performed adequately on their exams from the previous semester.

3. Are students able to apply what they have previously learned to new and different ideas, subjects and situations; that is, if they have understood and retained the material they were supposedly taught, can they employ what is known as "critical thinking?" Of course, if students haven't mastered the material they were supposed to learn, there is nothing for them to "think about critically."

4. Finally, are students able to innovate and come up with new ideas, approaches to cultural issues, interpretations of literature, or scientific and mathematical thinking?

Rather than advocating that we should get rid of tests, I support the idea of developing much more thorough and rigorous ways in which we determine how well our children are being educated. The "standard" being used today "fails" because it is not only flawed and manipulated; it's also deceptive to those students and their parents who believe that if their children have "high" scores on these tests, they are really learning something that they can take with them and apply in their future studies or life experiences.

Certainly, there will be exceptional learners who can do all of these things, and there are good teachers that guide them to excel. But this is not applicable to the majority, and it is in their interests as well as the future of our democracy that they be given the kind of instruction that they will be able to understand, retain and apply what they learned for many years after they graduate.

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