The news last week about Minnesota’s standardized reading scores reminded me how much I hate standardized tests. In my considered opinion, one-size-fits all standardized tests are the absolute worst tools I have seen for improving education.
Except for all the other options available to us.
Before explaining my Churchillian verdict on standardized tests, I should mention that I was a very poor standardized test taker back in the day. When I should have been answering questions, I tended to be thinking about why they asked the question…or why they used that particular wording…or what kind of deductive mind games they were trying to play…or what kind of test scores Charlie on Charlie’s Angels got in order to land that awesome job…or what is so special about #2 pencils for chrissake…or why the cute girl three rows over would never be interested in a guy like me, or why… And then when they announced there was one minute left before our life’s course would be charted by optical mark recognition equipment, I would guess “C” on the large portion of the test that I had not yet read.
Maybe that shows that I had an attention deficit disorder. Maybe it means I was analytical, creative, intellectually curious, hormonal, or moronic.
Psychoanalysis aside, this was not a winning strategy for me. It also wasn’t a winning strategy for the institutions who wanted an honest assessment of my likelihood of success. Because I turned out to be a “late bloomer,” someone who wasn’t predicted by the optical recognition scanner to succeed in academics or a white collar career, but did.
Given my personal experience, you would think that I’d want to ban standardized tests. I’m sorely tempted. But at the same time, I do think that K-12 schools need to be intentional and disciplined about teaching the foundational skills most of us need to succeed. I do want to keep kids away from teachers and schools who can’t or won’t teach those things. I do want to measure student performance in order to incent individual and institutional improvement, empower parents to vote with their feet, and target early help to kids who are falling behind.
And I can’t figure out how to achieve those things without standardized tests. Maybe those of you who got kickass standardized test scores can figure that out, but I can’t.
At the same time, I agree with those who say we need to weigh test results with an understanding that some teachers have much more challenging teaching assignments than others. And of course, we should eliminate duplicative testing and continually improve the testing tools to make sure they aren’t biased, and measure what they’re intending to measure. I’m in complete agreement with those who say we need to also teach subjects not covered on the tests, such as art, music, logic, economics, social studies, foreign languages, literature, communications and others. And yes, I realize that my “all of the above” education strategy will cost more. Send me a bill; I’ll enthusiastically pay my fair share.
But as much as I loathe the standardized test scores that nearly made a sanitary engineer out of me, I honestly just can’t think of a better way to solve these difficult problems. In other words, I’m still guessing “C.”