How bad is the standardized testing obsession in public education? Really bad, says James Arnold, the former superintendent of Pelham City Schools in Pelham, Ga., in the following post. A version of this appeared on his blog.  

By James Arnold

Are you defined by a test? If you were born before 1985, chances are the answer is “no.” If, on the other hand, you were born after that date, you and your public education experience are data points on administrators’ data walls — all required by the high-stakes standardized testing policies that started in the No Child Left Behind era and that have turned America’s classrooms into test-prep factories.

(Notice that I said public education.While a test-based “accountability” regime has been imposed upon students in public education, no such laws or requirements have been extended to the 10 percent of U.S. students in private or religious schools. Do you hear the outcry from teachers, parents and politicians over the omission of that 10 percent from the “mandates and benefits” of standardized testing and accountability? Of course not.)

Right now your child in public education, from kindergarten through their senior year, is being bullied by those who insist that the only way public schools and public school teachers can be held accountable is through ever more standardized testing and data-driven instruction and data points and data walls and data analysis. 

Almost all of the tests I took during my educational career were made by teachers. Remember those? They are tests that individual teachers constructed and designed particularly for the students in their classes that covered a well-defined content area or subject. That was back when teachers were trusted and allowed to teach without legislative and federal over-the-shoulder intrusiveness. The scores we made on those tests ended up being a significant part of our grade at the end of each grading period. There were few, if any, abortive legislative attempts at legislating excellence and teachers, for the most part, were not only allowed but encouraged to actually teach.

Students in the pre-No Teacher Left Unblamed era generally took one or two standardized tests during their educational careers. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills was widely used, but the scores did not define the student or the teacher. Parents may have privately done the happy dance when their kids were in a top percentile but did not hang their heads in shame when their progeny were scored on the wrong end of the bell curve because the information was private and not open for public discussion. No attempts were made to shame students or teachers into higher levels of performance. Unbelievably, the information was sent home to parents, but, more importantly, used by teachers to denote where improvements in instructional focus might occur. There is little chance of that happening today with our post-mortem assessment mentality where the tests are given at the end of the school year and results returned far too late for teachers to affect any sort of learning focus from those results.

Standardized testing has been given the role of arbiter of all things educational; the test drives instruction and not the other way around. Rather than instruction being the rationale for testing, the opposite is more often the case. But test prep and testing pep rallies and administrative pressure to raise test scores — along with the unbelievable public acceptance of standardized tests as accurate measures of educational progress and attainment, as measures of individual achievement through a one size fits all method — aren’t close to  true education.

Teachers are judged by the test scores of students assigned to their class with no consideration given to pre-existing conditions, such as the effects of living in poverty? Can you imagine a lawyer or doctor not being allowed to take pre-existing conditions or past performance into account? Me neither. Parents demand individualization in their child’s education, yet succumb readily to the belief that tests designed for every student can be an accurate measure of their student’s individual achievement and progress. Go figure. And there’s this: Many teachers now get evaluated by the test scores of students they don’t have because of the peculiarities of calculating the scores in the first place. It sounds crazy but it’s true.

The current accountability system has been imposed under the assumption that public education is failing and that the golden days of public schooling are gone. Really? ‘In 1889, only the top 3 percent of U.S. high school students went to college, and 84 percent of all American colleges reported remedial courses in core subjects were required for incoming freshmen. The U.S. Navy in 1940 tested new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math and found that 60 percent of high school graduates failed. In 1942, the New York Times noted only 6 percent of college freshmen could name the 13 original colonies and 75% did not know who was president during the Civil War. In 1953, Admiral Rickover published “American Education: A National Failure.” In 1955, “Why Johnny Can’t Read” became a national bestseller. In 1959 LIFE magazine published “Crisis in Education” that noted the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik because “the standards of education are shockingly low.”

In 1969,  the chancellor of New York City public schools, Harvey Scribner, said that for every student schools educated there was another that was “scarred as a result of his school experience.” The Educational Testing Service discovered in 1976 that college freshmen could correctly answer only half of 40 or so multiple choice questions, and in 1983, “A Nation at Risk” told us of the apparent failure of our system of public education. In 1996 E. D. Hirsch called for a traditional approach to public education in “The Schools we Need and Why We Don’t Have Them.” In 2002 George Bush shifted the blame of educational attainment from the student and his parents directly onto teachers with his “soft bigotry of low expectations” and, much to the delight of testing companies, began the onslaught of measurement of what is really unmeasurable with No Child Left Behind. The Obama administration has only made standardized tests more important rather than less.

In spite of the predictions of doom due to a “failed system of public education” and despite the fact that United States students have never measured in the top 25 percent of any international measure of educational success, our country continues to set the standard for the world in scientific and economic achievement by any measure, and the standard of entrepreneurship and creativity fostered by our system of public education is unmatched anywhere in the world. Rather than obsessing on how well students do on international tests (whose reliability and validity are open to question),  a more pertinent question is how our national creativity can be adequately measured, quantified and replicated.

The “failure of public education” is an invention of its enemies. Saying something often enough does not make it true. Because every child does not succeed does not mean that the system is a failure. Because every student does not succeed at high levels and because every expectation is not met does not — by any stretch of the imagination — mean the entire system has failed. Success in education, as in excellence and in life, cannot be legislated and because not everyone achieves the American dream does not mean the dream itself is a failure. Motivation, whether from an inner source or family expectations, is a deciding factor. Not all children will succeed, but that does not mean we should not expect them to or that we should quit trying because they don’t. Failure is as much a part of life as success, and in public education there are far more successes than dropouts. 

The Georgia Department of Education budget includes over $25 million for testing and test development. That money, multiplied over time, could have an enormous positive impact in lowering class sizes, eliminating furlough days and providing positive staff development experiences developed and implemented by teachers. But if government officials aren’t going to this testing obsession, who will? Parents and grandparents.

Many parents don’t understand how easy it is for them to have their students opt out of standardized testing of any type. Schools, school administrators and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will not advertise that course of action, and parents may hear from beleaguered school officials how opting out will “hurt the testing percentage requirements for your school.” We can only hope.