Standardized Tests: Is the Tail Wagging the Dog?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

It was the night before my third-grade-history Standards of Learning test, and I was studying flashcards. I had them memorized to a T, but I realize now that I knew absolutely nothing of consequence.

As my mom read the name on the card, Paul Revere, I parroted back the exact words on the flashcard: "The British are coming! The British are coming!" But I didn't know who he was or what his historical significance was. In fact, I told my mom it didn't matter. I needed to know only what he said.

Today's educational system places so much emphasis on standardized tests that the most important aspects of learning are overlooked. Numerous teachers do not teach subjects; they merely teach to tests of the subjects and have taken creativity out of the classrooms.

Teaching to the tests limits possible discussions and free-flowing ideas that spark students' interests and help them to interact with their peers and build on their thoughts. Memorizing answers to test questions and monotonous testing drills do not allow such interaction.

Although standardized testing provides a snapshot of student knowledge, the school year should not revolve around it. Testing should measure what students have learned, not determine what is to be taught. SOL testing emphasizes pass rates rather than true knowledge. In fact, SOL tests have been dumbed down to ensure higher passing rates. The simplicity of the questions makes one wonder whether this is really all that's expected expect of us. Do they really think so little of our ability?

So what are we to do? We live in a competitive society in which testing ability and knowledge has become routine, yet our testing standards continue to be lowered. We cannot simply get a job and succeed because we are able to spit out the correct answer to a multiple-choice question. Society needs people who can discuss, analyze, relate and interpret. Are the SOLs getting it done, or are they hurting students by artificially limiting information and inquiry in the classroom? I think the answer is obvious.

Kelly Wood

Kelly Wood will be a senior at West Potomac High School next year.

You state your case very well, but I am not convinced. I have spent a lot of time in classrooms in this region looking for teachers teaching to the test, being boring and repetitive and demanding memorization.

I have mostly seen quite the opposite: engaging educators who turn their classes into lively conversations about the subject at hand. So, obviously, I haven't been watching the same classes you have.

Here is how you, and any other students who wish to write me, can convince me that I am wrong about the frequency of such awkward instruction. Give me some detailed and vivid examples of this kind of routinized teaching. Your example shows how you were studying for a test but does not give me anything the teacher said to you that pushed you in that sterile direction. You don't have to name names, although if I run your letters I will probably call first and ask a few questions to make sure you are not repeating secondhand information. This column is going on vacation until school starts. I would be happy to hear from anyone over the summer who wants to send me true-life, inside-the-classroom stories.

Dear Extra Credit:

A few years ago, you printed a breakdown, by middle school, of the number of students in the freshman class at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Could you provide a similar breakdown for next year's class, and compare it with your earlier numbers? It would be interesting to see whether anything has changed in the past few years.

Dave Baron


What an intriguing question. Ordinarily, I would not spend much time looking at the admissions data of one magnet high school, but Jefferson, as far as I can tell, is not only the most selective public high school in the Washington area but the most selective in the country, so it deserves attention.

Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier sent me the breakdown of the number of students accepted by Jefferson from each middle school for the freshman classes that entered in 2005, 2006 and 2007. What I found most interesting was how sharply these numbers changed from year to year at some schools, and how much the number of Fairfax middle-schoolers admitted to Jefferson dropped from 2006 to 2007.

As you know, Jefferson admits about 500 freshmen a year, based mostly on grades, test scores and teacher recommendations. Fairfax eighth-graders can apply, but so can students from Loudoun, Prince William, Arlington and Fauquier counties, and from the city of Falls Church. This includes home-schooled and private-school students, who, I was surprised to see, made up 12 percent of the students admitted to Jefferson in 2007. (The private-school data for 2006 and 2007 were not included in the spreadsheets I received.)

In a box with this column are the numbers of students admitted from each Fairfax middle school in those three years. Note that from 2005 to 2007, Carson went from 36 to 61 students admitted and Kilmer from 41 to 55. In that period, Longfellow dropped from 61 students admitted to 47, Thoreau from 11 to one, and Twain from 12 to seven. Such year-to-year volatility might reflect normal variation in the number of students interested in and qualified for Jefferson, and will even out over the long term. If I receive more questions on this issue, I will explore it further in the fall.

Extra Credit will be on vacation for the summer, but don't stop those questions and comments. Please send them, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail

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