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The Issue Isn’t the Test

The Issue

When I began as a teacher, I immediately found an easy villain in standardized tests.  After watching students get nervous enough to vomit and teachers turn cynical and mean during testing week, I knew intuively that something was broken.  I began pointing out the discrepencies in what we say and how we act: saying we believe in differentiated instruction and then testing with a one-size-fits-all model, claiming we support authentic learning and then offering something artificial, talking about critical thinking and then measuring baseline knowledge.

Over time, I realized that my approach had been myopic.  The real villain wasn’t a noun.  It was a verb.  It was the process of taking something that might work in one context and pushing it across all other contexts blindly, transforming unity to uniformity and standards into standardization.   I watched as a beautiful concept like the shared public commons became a prison-like description of lock-step adherance to the rules.

Standardized Schools

I began to listen to the language and recognize the semantic environment.  They’d use military and industrial language, a throwback to the days when we adopted German militarism alongside the factory model, all in the name of “progress.”   Education reformers had taken something relational and turned it into a cold, effecient procedure, leaving us with:

  • Standardized standards with standardized assessments
  • Standardized materials with a bland, standardized textbook format
  • Standardized lesson plans, requiring all teachers to use the same format
  • Standardized discipline plans with rigid rules and procedures
  • Standardized physical climate, with the same Blackboard Configuration and Word Walls (we managed to align the words “hate the micromanaging tyranny” on ours)
  • Standardized grade levels and classrooms, so that students of mixed age and ability never have a chance to mentor one another

My Reaction

So, I became jaded and bitter and thought about the best option.  What’s the one, new model we need?  I worked on a committee to redesign our school and for awhile it seemed like the district was open to turning our “failing school” into a twenty-first century classroom.  After working on this committee, though, I recognized that we were doing the same thing.  We were creating a newer factory.  We were developing a one-size-fits-all model and expecting all teachers to fall in line with our thinking.

I recognized that the bigger issue of standardization is hubris.  I saw in myself a dangerous tendency to bulldoze others in the name of change, using the same semantic metaphors as those I wanted to revolt against.  “Just get on board.  If you aren’t on the same page, you need to find a new book,” I said at one point.  Yes, both cliche and innaccurate and subtly dangerous.

The Solution

Ultimately, if we want to see true reform, we have to recognize that it will look different in various contexts.  It might be unschooling for some, home schooling for others, community schools for others and progressive public schools for others.  It might mean building a new structure or it might mean transforming the factory into something beautiful.

When we move from “this is what works, you need to try this” to “this worked for me,” what emerges is a true sense of unity in ideas like authenticity and humanity.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


7 thoughts on “The Issue Isn’t the Test

  1. Totally agree John. I don’t see the exams my students do in the IB program as evil. They are well constructed and although I think they are worth an inordinate amount of their grade, the exams are worth having. However, they aren’t for every student. No one program is right for every student, and a consequence of this is that no one assessment tool is the right one to measure how well a student, a school, or a teacher is doing.

    Posted by dwees | February 18, 2011, 9:58 am
  2. I’m with you both as well. There needs to be a vast portfolio of types of schools, kinds of learning environments, and a very real possibility of no school at all, for learners. The issue isn’t only standardized tests, of course. The trouble is that many (most) of our economy is built around the one-best-school-model, and it means an enormous shift of resources and responsibilities to broaden the portfolio. What do you think about that John?

    And what happens to kids who have no one to help them choose the best learning environment for them? What will their options look like?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 18, 2011, 10:53 am
  3. You’ve hit a nail on the head here John. The challenge is that the nail is wrapped up in the threads of equity, equality and sameness. It will be tough to unravel this complexity, but I think that it will be worth it.

    If we can get past the polarization that tends to happen when we begin to talk about choice and alternative schools, we might be able to make some progress.

    I think that, attached to any government-funded alternative, there needs to be a valid research plan, as well as a communication strategy. These have been missing from many of the “innovations” with which I’ve been involved over the years and, as a result, the initiative can quickly become isolated and of no real value to anyone outside of the project.

    I appreciate the reminder that we don’t simply want to create another factory…


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 18, 2011, 11:15 am
  4. Standardization is a big problem, but I think one of the legs on which it rests is testing, John. Topple the assessment and you topple the instruction that goes with it. I would accept the freedoms of diverse assessment and instruction in return for addressing a concept-baeed curriculum (content based curricula, when not requested by the student, are deadly).

    Let’s consider public education as a stool with standardization as its seat. Would it be okay if we replaced two of the legs and the seat, but kept some kind of common concept-based curriculum as a third, resilient leg?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 20, 2011, 4:30 pm
  5. Tests have been around forever. I, myself, took a state test every year in elementary school 10+ years before NCLB. My teachers never taught ‘test prep’ and there wasn’t a ‘word wall’ or standards written on the board for each subject each day. Yet, we all did fine on The Test.

    What I think has happened is that schools have overlooked that the best preparation for a test is a strong curriculum and a team of strong teachers who are trusted to do what they know is best for their students. Instead, schools have taken the easy route of basing everything around The Test. As Chad described, the Test has become the seat.

    As for your school’s initiative, I think that Kirsten has hit the nail on the head in that we have a ‘one school fits all’ mentality that makes us strive to create a pretty standardized experience no matter how innovative. I am glad to read, however, that your school was given the chance to turn itself around. I wish my last school had been given that chance. Instead we were shut down. Keep us updated on the progress.

    Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | February 20, 2011, 8:47 pm


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