The Washington Post

Philosophical proof: Why testing obsession is nutty

This was written by Carol Cross, who worked for 20 years in Washington D.C. for a national educational association and an educational curriculum developer. She is now a homeschooling parent and an educational consultant living in Cary, N.C., with a bachelors degree in philosophy from the College of William & Mary and a masters degree in education from George Washington University. This appeared on her blog, Teaching Your Middle Schooler.”

By Carol Cross

With all the discussion back and forth about standardized testing and data-driven schools and performance-based teacher evaluation and salary systems, etc., I thought perhaps I should go back to my philosophical roots and use some old-fashioned philosophical proofs to bring clarity to the debate.

I could probably write this all up in formal philosophical logic symbols, but to make it more reader-friendly, I’m just going to use the English language.

Argument #1

High standardized test scores are necessary because they prove the effectiveness of school education.

High standardized testing scores require all students to give the same correct answers to the questions.

For all students to give the same correct answers to the questions, all students must learn the same things in their educational classes.

All students learning the same thing in their education means that school education is standardized.

Therefore, to have high standardized testing score, education must be standardized.

Argument #2

Human brains do not operate the same way; indeed, science is proving all the ways that individual human brains, or at least groups of them, think differently from other groups and/or individuals.

Humans do not have the same personalities, body types, learning styles, or energy levels.

Humans do not have the same body of experiences, histories, or family situations.

Therefore, humans are highly differentiated.

Argument #3

School education is the education of humans.

Humans are highly differentiated.

Therefore, to serve humans, education must be highly differentiated.

But wait! We’ve now proved that education must be standardized AND education must be highly differentiated! Obviously, both can not be true. So which argument is wrong? The one that is based on what science and our own common experience both tell us--that humans are a set of very different creatures? Or the one that is based on a premise that was invented by a subset of humans who decided that high standardized test scores are the best way to evaluate education?

If you are having trouble, let me give you a hint. Arguments 2 and 3 are based on what we philosophers like to call “Facts.” Argument 1 is based on what we call a “Supposition.” Which one do you think triumphs in a logical argument?

Or if philosophy isn’t your thing, try approaching this from a scientific perspective. We just had a class on biodiversity (you can read about it here. Nature supports differentiation, not a reduction in complexity or variety. When humans have interfered with biodiversity by reducing the number of animal or plant or sometimes insect species living in an area, it has generally led to ecological, environmental, or health problems, and often even disasters. Life itself is supported by diversity, not standardization. So why would we be developing an educational system that runs counter to this basic precept of living?

Thus, the problem with all this focus on testing is not just that it doesn’t work, or wastes resources that would be better spent on other things, or that it is unproven.

The problem with such an insistence on standardized testing, and therefore standardized education, is that it runs counter to the fundamental reality of life, which is diversity. And what do we call people who insist on things that are counter to reality? (Let’s skip the obvious topical joke here, folks--this is serious business.) We call them INSANE.

So there you have it. A singular focus on standardized test scores is insanity. I only wish that more educational policy makers would get their heads out of their data and wake up and smell the coffee---coffee that originated, of course, in the rainforest...the most biodiverse ecosystem on this planet.


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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