Why America Demonizes its Teachers -- Part 5: What's Wrong With Standardized Testing?

There are several problems with standardized testing. (1.) Many test questions are flawed: some have no right answer, while others have more than one; some questions are unclear or misleading; others are too difficult by two or three years beyond their intended age group; some questions are politically slanted; others contain product placements; some cover material never taught; and others are culturally biased against students of racial and ethnic minorities, poor students, students with disabilities, and immigrant students still learning English. There are other problems as well.

(2.) Diane Ravitch, America's preeminent education historian contends that the problem with the Common Core standards embodied in standardized testing is that they were written in a way that violates nationally and internationally recognized canons of setting standards and are so fundamentally flawed that they have no legitimacy whatsoever.

Moreover, they were developed behind a veil of secrecy by a small group of people, most of whom were not educators, but testing company officials. Only a few, if any, were experienced classroom teachers, subject-area experts, early-childhood educators, or teachers of children with disabilities.

Created in 2009, these standards were offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and hurriedly adopted one year later by 45 cash-strapped states in order to be eligible for Race-to-the-Top federal grant money.

However, it is not only their flawed content, the limited input of educators, the shroud of secrecy surrounding their development, and the haste of their adoption that explain the widespread distrust and suspicion with which these standards are viewed by teachers.

There are also the following six objections against standardized testing that are even of more troubling concern: its punitive nature, the questionable educational assumption upon which it is based, its multi-billion dollar price tag that impoverishes schools, the illegal purpose it serves, its toxic effect upon real education, and a misconception about what it actually measures.

(3.) These tests are punitive in nature against both students and teachers. They determine whether students can move on to middle and high school, be admitted to Honors and AP programs, and graduate from high school. Depending on student scores, teachers and principals can be fired, their schools closed and then turned into charters.

In view of the high-stakes consequences that flow from these tests, it beggars belief that many of their test questions are flawed or that they were never field-tested. Nor is there a process for appealing or revising poor test questions. When a high-stakes test is itself so mistake-ridden, how can its scores be considered valid?

Even more disturbing, these tests were made so difficult in 2013 that only 31 percent of New York students passed them, and in 2015 an as-of-yet undisclosed percentage of Pennsylvania students! The difficulty of these tests can only be explained as a punitive measure that devastates student morale, reinforces the narrative of "failed" public schools, undermines America's confidence in them, and provides governors with the pretext for closing those which "do poorly" and replacing them with charters.

(4.) Standardized testing is based on the highly questionable educational assumption that multiple-choice tests promote the skills children need in the 21st century better than a rich and well-rounded curriculum that teaches them to think critically and creatively in facing the challenges of the modern world.

What is remarkable is that this questionable value judgment, which has had such a divisive and ruinous effect on American education, has never been publicly debated, let alone approved by the American people, but merely imposed on public-school children by the federal government. The reason is quite simple -- debating it would have made the unsoundness of its arguments apparent to all.

(5.) The only winners in this multi-billion-dollar marketing scam are the test-making giants Pearson Publishing Co., McGraw Hill et al., and educational consultants and vendors, whose coffers have been fattened by billions in tax revenue intended for children. Pearson and Co. and its Sales Rep Extraordinaire, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are breaking the law by dictating what is taught in American classrooms.

These billions should be going to schools to hire more teachers so that students can have individual attention in smaller classes; hire school nurses, guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers, and librarians to deal with students' physical, emotional, family, and intellectual needs; offer richer, more varied, and well-rounded academic programs; and make needed repairs to school buildings.

(6.) It comes as no surprise that Secretary Duncan has never acknowledged the illegality of standardized testing or responded to the criticisms against it. Silence is always the best defense against an indefensible policy. However, there is that old legal maxim that when you have no defense, you abuse your opponents, as Mr. Duncan did when he insulted the mothers of children who had taken these tests.

The legal prohibition against government's controlling what is taught in the classroom continues to be flouted by Secretary Duncan to advance the agenda of privatization as mayors and governors close public schools and replace them with charters.

(7.) Standardized testing undermines the very education it is designed to improve. Teachers spend so much time on prepping for tests and administering them that the traditional curriculum no longer exists. Science, history, civics, world languages, music, and art are no longer taught because of the inordinate emphasis upon reading and math. Education today is simply testing and test preparation!

This dumbing down of the public-school curriculum is creating a generation of children who are never taught how to question and think, but only blindly to accept the "right answer" -- a dictator's dream in subjecting a submissive population to the Gospel of the ruling class and its media evangelists.

(8.) Standardized testing is based on a misconception about what it actually measures, a misconception which Ravitch exposed and documented in her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. No newspaper has drawn attention to this crucial revelation and the numerous supporting studies she cites in the footnotes to chapters 10, 11, and 31 for one simple reason -- it would cause the entire standardized testing industry to come crashing to the ground.

Ravitch makes reference to study after study that student test scores do not reflect teacher effectiveness at all, but rather the family income/socioeconomic background of the students who take them. Poverty and segregation are the real causes of low scores, not teachers. Poverty in all its overwhelming, soul-crushing malignity and the racial segregation of apartheid schools create a climate of hopelessness that inescapably dooms children to perpetual failure.

This same case is made in a 2013 Rutgers/Civil Rights Project Report, New Jersey's Apartheid and Intensely Segregated Urban Schools: "Such double segregation by race and poverty is systematically linked to unequal educational opportunities and outcomes. Research has shown for half a century that children learn more when they are in schools with better-prepared classmates and excellent, experienced teachers, schools with a strong, well-taught curriculum, stability and high graduation and college-going rates.

"Concentrated poverty schools, which are usually minority schools, tend to have a high turnover of students and teachers, less-experienced teachers, much less-prepared students, and a more limited curriculum often taught at much lower levels because of the weak previous education of most students. They have much higher dropout rates and few students prepared for success in college (see page 14)."

America has the highest rate of children living in poverty of any advanced nation in the world -- nearly 25 percent. This is the reason why our national average of test scores is low: "family poverty, the most reliable predictor of low test scores." Poverty, not teachers, drags down test scores.

Scores will be high for students with educated parents, and low for students from backgrounds of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents or little parental support, as well as for English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Studies show that student achievement as reflected in test scores has everything to do with home environment, parental involvement and poverty and little to do with teachers, perhaps only 15 percent. It's an abuse of test scores to evaluate teachers on the basis of them, whereas if you fix students' environment, you'll begin to raise their achievement.

Yet when hearing this evidence, advocates for standardized testing stop up their ears and boldly press forward. Their case has never been about evidence, but only about having standardized testing as a way to blame teachers, fire them, privatize public education, and turn public schools into charters.

No other advanced nation in the world evaluates its teachers on test scores or subjects it children to relentless testing and calls it "education"! Why, then, does America? The answer is simple -- there's money in it! Lack of evidence means nothing at the jingle of money, the most eloquent and persuasive of advocates that can bewitch legislatures, governors, and mayors into doing its bidding.

Consider the chutzpah of these reform hucksters! Thanks to them, American education is in shambles; children are forced to waste years of their lives by being subjected to a blizzard of testing despite parental outrage and teacher objections; billions are spent on workshops, consultants, hardware, software, training manuals, prepping materials, and standardized tests as the infallible indicator of teacher effectiveness -- without one shred of evidence!

All to promote an educational scam tricked up in sanctimonious rhetoric of "saving the children" when they are being exploited for financial gain! What kind of people do things like this, and what kind of Education Secretary gives them his blessing?

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It is understandable, then, why both Michelle Rhee, CEO of StudentsFirst, an education-reform advocacy group, and Campbell Brown, education-reform advocate with her program, The Seventy Four, ignore such studies which draw into question the very legitimacy of what they're about. In fact, Ms. Rhee even backed out of a scheduled debate with Ms. Ravitch at Lehigh University in 2013.

Mss. Rhee and Brown simply claim that when students do poorly, it's solely the fault of their teachers and has nothing to do with home life, lack of parental involvement, poverty, or segregation. In fact, effective teachers can motivate students even when they are hungry, sick, malnourished, homeless, or live a war zone, all of which are simply "excuses" for children not learning.

Their denial, of course, flies in the face of reality since they cannot afford to admit that poverty and segregation are the problem. And, more to the point, nor could their billionaire friends and corporate sponsors who would have to get real and acknowledge that America does, indeed, have a pandemic problem with poverty, and that they would have to fix it if they were really in earnest about school reform.

But, rest assured, this will not happen, because rebuilding cities and infrastructure is only what corporations do for countries abroad after they've been bombed into submission, and there are fat government contracts with limitless profits for the taking. Whereas it doesn't cost anything to "reform" education. You simply blame teachers and fire them.

And if you really want to get to the root of the problem, you can hire Mss. Rhee and Brown as talking heads for your corporate friends and privatizers, whose ultimate game plan is getting rid of all public-school teachers and turn their schools into charters -- with help from StudentsFirstNY, a charter school lobbying group, on whose board of directors sits Campbell Brown's husband, Dan Senor.

And, voilà, you, too, can begin to "advocate" for the seventy-four million students in America, as you await your share of the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars that will come rolling your way year after year with no bothersome public accountability or nasty state oversight to get in the way of your charter school's cash flow.

Then, to guarantee quality assurance, personnel retention, and your own bottom line, you can hire only untrained temps at one-half the price and, in time, you'll have a completely deprofessionalized "teacher" corps of young transients, who are here today and gone tomorrow, with no union, seniority, tenure, or pension. Now, what parents wouldn't want their children taught by happy "teachers" like these!

(This piece is an expanded version of an article published in the Times of Trenton in 2014.)