The Rise of the Testing Culture

Kisha Lee, with her daughter Ryan Lee and Jordan Pierce, gives tests to prepare her preschoolers for kindergarten.
Kisha Lee, with her daughter Ryan Lee and Jordan Pierce, gives tests to prepare her preschoolers for kindergarten. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Pop quizzes, spelling bees and the three letters that strike dread into high school students across the country -- SAT. We have become a Test Nation, and the results can determine the course of a student's life. Some are beginning to question: Is it all too much? Has our obsession with testing pushed students too hard? Just what do tests really tell us? Over the next few months, The Washington Post will examine the nature of testing and its effects. First in a series:

Along with painting and gluing and coloring and playing, Kisha Lee engages the youngsters in her day-care program in another activity: testing.

Three- and 4-year-olds take spelling tests of such words as "I," "me" and "the," as well as math tests, from which they learn how to fill in a bubble to mark the right answer.

Test preparation for children barely out of diapers is hardly something Lee learned while getting her education degree at the University of Maryland, she said. But it is what she says she must do -- for the kids' sake -- based on her past experience teaching in a Prince George's County elementary school.

"Kids get tested and labeled as soon as they get into kindergarten," said Lee, who runs the state-certified Alternative Preschool Solutions in Accokeek. "They have to pass a standardized test from the second they get in. I saw kindergartners who weren't used to taking a test, and they fell apart, crying, saying they couldn't do it.

"The child who can sit and answer the questions correctly is identified as talented," Lee said. "It hurts me to have to do this, but it hurts the kids if I don't."

Lee's approach underscores the culture of testing that reigns in the United States. Americans like tests so much that they have structured society around them.

Newborns are greeted into the world with the Apgar test to measure activity, pulse, reflex, appearance and respiration. Getting a 3 or below is like getting an F. Soon to follow are assessments -- the first of many -- that will compare them with their peers. Are they crawling, sitting, walking at the correct age?

In no time, kids are facing tests to measure school readiness.

Four-year-olds are tested in literacy and math in Head Start programs, and kindergartners undergo tests to see who is "gifted." By then, they are firmly ensconced on the testing treadmill.

"We are obsessed with tests," said Occidental University education professor Ron Solorzano, who used to teach in Los Angeles public schools.

"We are pretty much preparing [kids] for the SAT at the age of 6," added Solorzano, who also worked at the Educational Testing Service, the world's largest private educational testing and measurement organization.

Americans embrace tests because they are entranced with objectivity -- or at least the appearance of it, experts say.

"Merely having a number associated with something makes it sound worthwhile, even if the number isn't all that valid," said Robert J. Sternberg, dean of Tufts University's School of Arts and Sciences and former president of the American Psychological Association.

No topic in education sparks as much debate and division as testing -- especially standardized testing.

Although U.S. students have never been strangers to tests, President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative has revolutionized the process. Implemented in 2003, the law seeks to hold schools accountable for results. It not only added a national mandate for testing, but also raised the stakes higher than ever. A single test today can determine grade promotion or high school graduation, a teacher's salary or a principal's job.

Proponents say standardized tests are the best objective tool to hold teachers and schools accountable; opponents argue that the tests prove nothing more than that some kids are better at taking tests than others.

"The problem is not the tests themselves," Sternberg said. "They are assigned a value way beyond what they actually have. It has become like a cult."

The testing culture "has a lot more momentum than it should," agreed Harvard University education professor Daniel Koretz, an expert on assessment and measurement. He said a lack of solid research on the results of the new testing regimen -- or those that predated No Child Left Behind -- essentially means that the country is experimenting with its young people.

Tests, experts say, also serve as self-fulfilling prophecies; the most elite schools accept only students with top scores and then brag that it is these students who do well. The current craze of ranking schools also perpetuates the importance of tests, they say.

Ask students what they think about standardized tests and many agree with Leah Zipperstein, a junior at Colorado College. She said she remembers her teachers in Cincinnati spending weeks in middle and high school helping kids practice to pass the tests rather than teaching something more substantive.

"I'm so sick of caring about those tests," she said.

"I think we have probably, as a culture and as a society, gone too far," said Michael A. Morehead, associate dean of the College of Education at New Mexico State University. "We need to really reflect on what these tests imply. They don't really evaluate character. They don't really evaluate persistence of an individual."

Standardized tests also don't measure values or attitude, said Daniel Chambliss, a sociology professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

"Tests measure very narrow kinds of things under very specific circumstances," he said. "And real life doesn't work that way."

Some polls indicate that a majority of Americans are growing dubious of high-stakes standardized tests; three of the major gubernatorial candidates in Texas, for example, want to de-emphasize the state's high-stakes exam.

Still, nobody expects tests to go away; in fact, the latest wrinkle in the debate is about a national test that would supplant the state and systemwide tests now given.

That is why Pat Wyman, an instructor at California State University at East Bay and author of "Learning vs. Testing: Strategies That Bridge the Gap," says students should just learn how to deal with tests -- of all kinds.


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