Standardized testing in a Non-standard world

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I am going to brag on myself a little bit, but I have a more noble purpose in mind.  So, please bear with me.

You know what I am really good at?  Standardized tests.

Standardized tests have been very, very good to me.  I “earned” more than a semester of college credit and a nice, big, fat scholarship to Baylor all by doing well on standardized tests.    I made good grades in high school, so my test scores were not a total surprise. But, I had plenty of friends who did as well or better than I did in classes and didn’t rake it in on the standardized tests like I did.  Also, I know lots of folks who went on to more academic fame and fortune than I ever will, who did not do as well as I did on the standardized tests.

I think the difference between doing “OK” at standardized tests and doing really well is a little bit of a knack.  Also, every standardized test I have ever seen favors reading in addition to, or even more than, the actual subject being tested.  I am very good at reading.

With that little bit of bragging out of the way, I can honestly and comfortably also report that the list of things I am not that good at would fill a thick binder: Sudoku, free throws, singing, anything that requires good vision, a steady hand, or the ability to quickly distinguish between right and left.

I’m not good at organizing events. I’m not good at making sure regulations are followed.  Not good at fixing things.  Not good at growing things.

I’m not good at making anything (including myself) look good.  I’m not good at building things.  I’m not good at measuring things.

I’m not good at getting a room full of kids to do what I want them to.  I’m not good at getting a room full of adults to do what I want them to.  I’m not even good at getting my dog to do what I want him to.

I’m not good at anything that requires keeping things clean or sanitary – think about that if you ever come to eat at my house.   With a few exceptions (chicken enchiladas and chocolate chunk cookies) I am also not good at making tasty food – especially not for a big group.

I am not good at dealing with grumpy people or sad people or mean people.  I’m not good at selling things or getting people to donate money.  I don’t have much “business sense” (whatever that is).   I’m not good at being in charge of other people doing things. I’m not good at things that require precision, or attention to minute detail, or repetition, or concentration for long stretches of time.   I am not good at physically risky things, or urgent things that require rushing around and making quick decisions.  I’m not good in an emergency.  I am not good at following a chain of command.

The list goes on, and on, and on.

Alright – I am good enough at some of these things.  I can do them when I have to, but I’m not really good at them, certainly not great at them.  I am terrible at some of them. I figure that’s why we have money – so I can conveniently trade the things I am good at for the things I am not good at or don’t enjoy doing.

That’s the way the world works.  We are good at some things, good enough at some other things, and then we depend on the strengths and skills of other people for the rest. We can get better at most things if we work at it, but we can never be great at everything.  We need each other.  I depend on you to be good at the thing you are good at, because I am not necessarily good at it. Also, it’s fine to be good enough at most things.  You don’t really have to be great at everything you do — “fine” is really fine for a whole bunch of things.

I’ve been thinking about all of this lately because I have been thinking a lot about public school.  How does public school fit into a world that works this way?

For some reason, at least since 2012 when “No Child Left Behind” exploded on the scene, the powers-that-be in charge of public education in Texas have slowly but surely narrowed the focus so that we “officially” seem to care about only a small subset of the skills it takes to make the world go around.   We seem to believe the only way a student can demonstrate understanding of those subjects is through a standardized test.  We seem to believe we are making schools better by making those standardized tests on those few subjects harder and harder – we prefer to say “more rigorous” because that sounds smarter.

We seem to believe that a school that trains a large percentage of students to pass standardized tests in those few subjects is a “good” school and a school where students don’t “perform well” on those tests is a “failing” school.

Now, weirdly, we are seriously considering paying for students to leave the schools that we have created.

If seems to me, we have perhaps gotten off track.

Maybe it’s time to re-consider the purposes of public school.  Instead of paying for schools, and then paying for students to leave the schools for which we are paying – maybe we should back up and take another swing at making public schools what we want them to be in the first place.

Here are some, perhaps unorthodox, ideas about the purpose of public school.  I am not committed to these yet…I’m just throwing out some ideas to get the ball rolling.

  1. Safety. At the most basic level, school is a safe place for kids to go while their parents go about the business of the world. This is not the highest or greatest purpose of school, but it is necessary, if not sufficient. So, I want to mention it before going on to loftier issues.
  2. Most all students should get “good enough” at a basic set of skills and knowledge. – With a few exceptions for students with profound learning challenges, there is a set of skills and knowledge that most people need in order to live and function in our economy and in our democracy: solid, not necessarily exceptional, reading skills; basic math skills – maybe through algebra and geometry; a general understanding of the scientific method, and a basic toolbox of science facts and theories;  a basic set of common cultural and historical facts and ideas;  a rudimentary understanding of how the government works (or is meant to work);  a rudimentary understanding about how money works and how “making a living” works; maybe an introduction to how to use a computer.  Yes, there is a set of basics that students need for living together in our society, and as the foundation for most kinds of work.  I’m not sure that “basic set” needs to include all the stuff we have crammed into it at this point.
  3. All students need to get some practice at learning how to learn and how to figure out new things on their own. – The world is changing quickly. Kids need some practice bringing order out of chaos, not just following pre-established patterns.
  4. All students need to be exposed to lots of different stuff. – Beyond the basics, kids need to be exposed to all kinds of different ideas and possibilities.  They need to see and try a lot of different things so that they have a good chance of finding a few things that “click.”
  5. In upper grades, students should get the opportunity to go into more depth on a few things. – Academic kids can dive into more challenging academics. People leaders can practice leading groups to accomplish real work. Makers can dive into making more challenging projects.  Artists can take their art up a level, etc. etc.  Students need the chance to develop the discipline and perseverance to get good at something beyond the first easy steps. This is where the rigor comes in.
  6. All students should get the conversation started about what happens next? – How are they going to trade what they are good at and/or good enough at for the kind of life they want for themselves? What decisions and actions are likely to help them build the kind of life they want, what is likely to limit their opportunities?
  7. Students should learn to work with people and with different kinds of people. – They should get guidance and practice in working respectfully and productively in different kinds of situations with lots of different kinds of people.

I am good at standardized tests, but you know what almost never comes up in the “real world?”  Standardized tests.  The world is not “standard.”  The main things standardized tests have going for them is that they are easy to grade and that they offer the illusion of objectivity and fairness.  They are useful as far as they go.   Certainly, test scores are one data point that could be used to make one aspect of public school stronger.  They are a tool, and like any tool they can be over-used or used incorrectly and in dangerous ways.

I don’t think our current over-reliance on standardized testing is making our schools stronger.  I don’t think the push toward vouchers is a step toward making our schools better.  I think strong public schools have a better shot at accomplishing the purposes I have spelled out above than a scattered network of private schools.  I’m not saying I have perfectly spelled out the “right” purposes for public school, but I definitely don’t think training students to perform on standardized tests is the right purpose.

We have some fantastic educators in Waco who are more than capable of developing and leading terrific learning opportunities that go far beyond rote learning – but those opportunities are more and more being squeezed out or offered only to the lucky few because of our subservience to the all-powerful test-based rankings.

We need to change the conversation we are having about public schools right now.  Instead of talking about paying students to leave the public school, we should be talking about the purpose of school, about how it fits into the way the world really works, about how we can build on the strengths we already have to make it even stronger.

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1 Comment

  1. pam thomason on April 14, 2024 at 9:06 pm

    As a former principal, I have fought this way of measuring school performance and individual learning for years. Ninety percent of mastering the tests is learning test format. How is that a form of true measurement of a child’s learning? It isn’t! Most of the tests rely on a child’s reading level and most are written above grade level. Multiple choice answers many times are tricky. If a child is trying to solve a multi step problem, one of the answer choices is a middle step and the child sees they got that answer and they choose it. These are all things I observed as we received released tests over the years. Great for children who are good test takers and can rewarded with opportunities. A teacher should not be graded on his/her test scores for the simple reason they have not been that child’s teacher every year of their education. They should be measured how far they have taken each child in the time they had them in their class. None of these tests can achieve that.

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