April 8, 2011

Standardized testing rules the world of American education these days, in case you hadn’t noticed. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, college admissions and the nation’s very future all revolve around performance on standardized exams. Business leaders, Obama administration officials, big-city school superintendents and opinion-makers all preach that America must raise our test scores, given that we’ve fallen dangerously behind the Chinese, the Finns, the Liechtensteiners and plenty more in the PISA rankings.

That would be the Program for International Student Assessment, given to 15-year-olds in 65 countries worldwide. When the kids from Shanghai aced reading, math and science on their first outing, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth we’re being out-educated.”

Now, critics say that PISA, the SAT and other standardized tests are a lousy way to measure educational attainment or value. But I say enough criticism already. Once you truly understand the awesome power of test scores, you will embrace them, as I have done — especially after realizing how standardized testing proves that I am a better basketball player than Michael Jordan.

Don’t laugh; I have the test results. I read something in a blog somewhere about how MJ recently made 16 out of 20 free throws in a friendly shooting contest. Pretty good, but I thought I could do better. So I went to my local gym and practiced and practiced until I achieved my aim: 18 out of 20 free throws! I’ll send you the video, if you like. (Or you could do what most people do with PISA scores and simply take my word for it.)

You may argue that it’s not a fair comparison, but that’s what so great about this — simply use the same rules we apply to judging PISA scores, and it’s perfectly fair.

So what if it’s not a head-to-head competition? PISA’s not a head-to-head competition. The students take the tests at different times in different places under different conditions. Heck, they take the reading test in different languages.

You say I’ve taken this competition much more seriously than MJ? But that’s the point — what makes you think that American students take PISA seriously? When I tested my teenage son’s knowledge of the PISA exam, he just looked at me quizzically, since he’d never heard of it. Now the SAT we take very seriously, and I just shelled out a sizable chunk of change for an SAT prep class for him. But that test has actual personal consequences attached to it, however tangential or dubious they might be.

Perhaps you think I had an unfair amount of practice. Do you really believe that every student who takes the PISA has the same amount of practice? I earned my superior results through a laser-focused effort on the defined task at hand — free-throw excellence.

What about replicating my results? No one asks PISA test-takers to replicate their results; everyone just accepts the rankings. So if the United States is No. 23 or No. 45 or whatever it is in the PISA rankings, then I am higher than MJ in the basketball rankings.

You may argue that there’s a lot more to being a basketball player than shooting free throws. That’s the beauty of it — there’s a lot more to learning and education, too, but it doesn’t matter.

So what if MJ can dribble, pass, shoot, rebound, defend, penetrate and dish, manage the shot clock, and demonstrate lots of other basketball skills so much better? Standardized tests don’t measure most skills, either, yet opinion leaders and policymakers constantly tell us how America’s education is going down the toilet based on those scores. So how important could those other skills be?

You may contend that MJ could slam-dunk from the free-throw line, which I cannot, and pull off other creative moves that I can’t even dream up. But there is no place in standardized tests for creativity. You may question whether the results have been altered in any way or be curious about whether the free-throw competition I described even exists. You would be wise to ask these questions, even though standardized tests don’t care about curiosity, either.

But whatever you do, don’t question the value of my rankings — because then you might have to question the value of other rankings such as PISA, and goodness knows it would be foolish to think that MJ could possibly be a better player than me after considering the results-driven, quantitative evidence I’ve provided. After all, free throws are the perfect measure of basketball attainment — they’re rigorous, objective and easy to assess. They’re the same for everyone regardless of gender, race or nationality. They can be used to compare individuals, teams, schools, states, even nations. (I figure my free-throw percentage puts me in the top five of developed nations worldwide.) Most of all, they often make the difference between winning and losing — and we want to be winners in the fiercely competitive global arena, don’t we?

So the next time the U.S. basketball team fails to win an Olympic gold medal or world championship, instead of doing such silly things as assembling a superb coaching staff or building a more carefully selected team of dedicated top players, here’s a much better idea: Let’s launch GAFSP — the Great American Foul Shooting Program. Every fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grader will be required to practice free-throw shooting daily until we know through continual assessment that our basketball superiority is forever secure. We’ll pattern it on No Child Left Behind — you know the drill. No allowing for coaches to make low performers “pushouts” this time around, though — our reputation as the world’s greatest basketball power is too precious to squander by failing to fix this problem.

And don’t be sidetracked by sideshows such as dunking phenom Jacob Tucker, whose 50-inch vertical leap won the NCAA slam-dunk contest last month. Everyone knows that dunking prowess is not a good measure of overall basketball ability. It’s judged subjectively and depends on genetic good fortune and individual talent brought to fruition by hard work, using past models of excellence as a guide, and maybe a little coaching.

And seriously, how could that possibly compare to the value of superior performance on a standardized test?

John Sener specializes in technology-enabled learning methods. A version of this essay first appeared on the Educational Technology & Change blog.

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