Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Standards and Assessment: Part 2

"Our 21st century educational system operates exactly as Thorndike intended: from our earliest grades, we are sorted according to how we perform on a standardized educational curriculum designed for the average student, with rewards and opportunities doled out to those who exceed the average, and constraints and condescension heaped upon those who lag behind. Contemporary pundits, politicians, and activists continually suggest that our educational system is broken, when in reality the opposite is true. Over the past century, we have perfected our educational system so that it runs like a well oiled Taylorist machine, squeezing out every possible drop of efficiency in the service of the goal its architecture was originally designed to fulfill: efficiently ranking students in order to assign them to their proper place in society."
~Todd Rose in The End of Average

What Do Norm-Referenced Tests Assess?


orm-referenced assessments are not designed to assess learning—they are mechanisms for comparing and separating students. The sole purpose of these tests is create a Bell Curve that, by its very design, relegates a third of the students to "below average." And guess who those students are?

Fifteen+ years after the insistence that higher standards and high-stakes testing would close the so-called achievement gap, the gap has widened. Despite the fact that schools in different cities, states, and even neighborhoods are not equally funded, policy makers blame and punish schools and teachers for this failure. Notice that the term "achievement gap" implies that there is something wrong with children who don't "measure up." Many insist that poverty is not an excuse, even as research has shown that socioeconomic level is the only meaningful correlation to standardized test scores.(1)

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In Death and Life of the Great American School System, education historian Diane Ravitch points out that the achievement gap begins long before the first day of school. Ravitch insists that any effort to "reform" schools "must occur in tandem with social reform including prenatal care and nutrition to avoid the risks of low birth weight and preventable disabilities; as well as early childhood education to provide the enriched intellectual, social, and emotional opportunities many children in poverty may lack."(2)

Research confirms the role of poverty in the development of the brain. Access to enriched environments has long been known to increase the density of connections within the brain. A recent study of over 1,000 children showed the following.

". . . certain brain regions, in particular those involved in language and decision-making, tended to be smaller in those from poorer and less educated families than those from affluent backgrounds…. The researchers found a strong association between family income and brain surface area, particularly in regions of the cortex known to be involved in things like language, reading and executive functions, or the higher cognitive skills used to control other cognitive processes, such as problem solving and memory.…The researchers also identified a relationship between brain morphology and parental education, with those from highly educated families tending to have a larger hippocampus, a region primarily involved in learning and memory."(3)
"Previous research has shown that lower-income students tend to suffer from more stress in early childhood, have less access to enriching educational resources, and receive less exposure to spoken language and vocabulary early in life. When all of these factors coalesce, they can lead to changes in brain structure, cognitive skills, and lower academic achievement. Different facets of childhood poverty—including elevated life stress and less nurturing by a caregiver due to financial constraints—combine to impact brain structure and function."(4)

Despite research that was well-known (to anyone who cared) prior to NCLB and continues to build, educational policy makers are committed to squandering billions of dollars on tests that have never been shown to measure anything of value in terms of individual learning, and are in fact widening the so-called "achievement gap" rather than recognizing it as the opportunity gap that it is.

Howard M. Miller, the chair of the Department of Secondary Education at Mercy College School of Education states: "If standardized tests are good at anything, it's measuring the achievement gap. That's because standardized tests allow educators to compare large populations of students, with the capability of disaggregating the data by demographics (race, economic status, gender). The human element means no standardized test is completely reliable. The relatively stable information we are able to obtain about large populations of students becomes useless when we consider individuals and small groups." (See The Myth of the Average Man for more about the flawed foundation of standards and standardized tests.)

"In all of the noise about the 'achievement gap,' what has been missing is a conversation about what 'achievement' itself might mean. Standardized testing has—intentionally or not—imposed a de facto definition of achievement as 'the score on a standardized achievement test.' Let me posit that this is a pretty silly definition. But silly or not, it has had the effect of narrowing the curriculum to those bits that can be captured on a bubble sheet or in a short essay.—Standardized tests lie outside of the teaching and learning process, and their use represents a disruption and an imposition."(5) (Emphasis added)

Parental Support for Standardized Tests


espite the fact that standards and standardized tests 1.) are based on incorrect statistical assumptions; 2.) do not measure changes in learning of individual students; 3.) have succeeded in widening the so-called "achievement gap" that they were supposed to fix; and 4.) are largely used to effectively maintain social classes, many parents still support their use.

"It is puzzling that so many civil rights groups have demanded the retention of high-stakes standardized tests, because it is the children they represent who are labeled, ranked, and rated by tests that are normed on a bell curve and that invariably favor the most advantaged students. If ever there was a socially constructed instrument that does not advance equity or civil rights, it is the standardized test."(6)

One can only assume that these groups have fallen for the meaningless promises that standardized tests are the only way to assure equal access to a quality education. In this article, as well as the article on the relationship between equal fit and equal opportunity, we examine what "equal access" truly means…and it has nothing to do with standards or testing.

Another critical area of concern about the obsession with standardized testing is the effect it is having on the mental health of students. To understand how serious this is, please read this report prepared by Parents Across America. The report summarizes research by a number of organizations and individuals. Other relevant articles on the topic can be found here and here.

The issues surrounding one-size-fits-all standards and standardized testing are legion, and many arguments about their failure to assess learning, as well as other negative side effects have been put forth by educational theorists, teachers, and others. Apparently, we are all preaching to the choir, because the rhetoric of policy makers not only remains the same, but has become more threatening. Test scores on invalid, meaningless, and destructive tests have become the single measure of the success or failure of students, teachers, and schools

One final thought. There is an old country saying that, "You don't fatten a big by weighing it." What, if any, role do high-stakes tests play in enhancing or facilitating the learning of students? Or do they, in fact, detract from the most meaningful learning opportunites as schools become test prep factories?

Weighing A Pig

  1. http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2014/10/07/sat-scores-and-income-inequality-how-wealthier-kids-rank-higher/
  2. Ravitch, Diane. (2010) Death and Life of the Great American School System. Basic Books, NY p286-287
  3. http://www.iflscience.com/brain/study-finds-association-between-poverty-and-brain-development-during-childhood
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201507/childhood-poverty-has-detrimental-impacts-brain-structure
  5. Miller, Howard M. (2013) The dilemma of standardized testing and the achievement gap, District Administration
  6. Ibid.
  7. http://dianeravitch.net/2016/03/05/laura-chapman-who-fights-to-keep-testing/

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