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September 2001 • Vol 1, No. 4 •

Book Review:

The Case Against Standardized Testing:
Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools

by Alfie Kohn,
Heinemann, (2000) 94 pages

Reviewed by Carole Seligman

Secretary of Education Rod Paige walks down the steps of Capitol Hill after participating in a news conference, Thursday, June 14, 2001 about the passage of the education bill in Washington. In a triumph for President Bush, the Senate overwhelmingly passed groundbreaking education legislation Thursday that requires annual math and reading tests for millions of schoolchildren as part of an effort to improve the nations’ public schools. Photo by Susan Walsh (AP)

I’m a teacher, an elementary public school teacher. I’ve been opposed to standardized testing of young children for a long time because I could easily see that such tests do not help teachers and parents see what the children can do or what their educational needs might be. I can see, also from my own experience, that the tests are not a learning experience, not enjoyable, and while we’re suffering through taking them and administering them, we’re not doing the valuable learning and teaching that we could be doing if it weren’t for these stupid tests!

Now, in addition to the standardized tests, the school district that I work in is joining the national forced march (called “accountability”) by adding on a “high stakes” test. “High stakes” means: Dire consequences if you don’t pass the test. A typical example is a test that students must pass in order to graduate from high school with a diploma. Elementary school children are also facing high stakes in that the standardized tests they must take are becoming part of the criteria for promotion to the next grade—in other words, low test scores may be used to make a child repeat a grade. Reputable studies show that forcing a child to repeat a grade is not a useful remedial strategy. In fact, children who have repeated a grade in elementary or middle school are more likely to drop out of school before completing high school.

You can tell by the title of this book that the author opposes standardized testing. So I was happy to be able to use the book for its well-marshaled arguments for getting rid of such tests.

Standardized testing has “never played such a prominent role in [U.S.] schooling,” says the author; and of course, students, parents, and teachers know this is true. Testing is used “as the primary criterion for judging children, teachers, and schools—indeed, as the basis for flunking students or denying them a diploma, deciding where money should be spent....Tests have lately become a mechanism by which public officials can impose their will on schools, and they are doing so with a vengeance.”

Standardized tests and the one-sided class war

And yet, all standardized testing really tells us “is how big the students’ houses are. Research has repeatedly found that the amount of poverty in the communities where schools are located, along with...other variables having nothing to do with what happens in the classroom [such as parental income, whether one or two parents live in the home, parent education level], accounts for the great majority of the difference in test scores from one area to the next.” In other words, the standardized tests have nothing to do with the schools or education and everything to do with the attack by the ruling class on public education.

All standardized testing really tells us is “how big the students’ houses are.”

Although he doesn’t talk much about it, Kohn, the author, does offer one possible explanation for this vengeance of public officials in charge of schools: Testing is seen by some as paving the way for privatization of education. “After all, if your goal was to serve up our schools to the marketplace, where the point of reference is what maximizes profit rather than what benefits children, it would be perfectly logical for you to administer a test that many students would fail in order to create the impression that public schools were worthless.”

The profits to be made in testing

Kohn also points out that some corporations reap enormous profits manufacturing and scoring the tests themselves—a quarter billion dollars in 1999 and rising. Some essay tests are scored by low-paid temp workers (not teachers) who scan and grade essays on a piece-work basis with a bonus that kicks in after several thousand essays have been graded.

But the strength of this little book is not in the deep analysis of public education and how the ruling capitalist class controls it. Its strength lies in Kohn’s explanation of the tests themselves and how harmful they are to children.

For example: Did you know that the kind of tests done in most of the states that are using standardized tests are what is called “norm referenced” tests? Finally, through this book, I have read an understandable explanation of what this very harmful idea, “norm referenced,” means. (I never could get a straight answer on this when I asked administrators in my school district.)

Norm referenced testing

This is what it means: a “norm referenced” test means that the test takers are compared with other test takers and the results are reported as a percentile on that comparison. Kohn quotes the man who coined the term “norm referenced” saying that such tests provide little or no information about what the individual can do. “They show that one student is more or less proficient than another, but do not show how proficient either of them is with respect to the subject matter....” Of course, the proficiency the test measures is test taking proficiency, not proficiencies that really matter in life.

“Think for a moment about the implications of this. No matter how many students take a norm referenced test (NRT), no matter how well or poorly they were taught, no matter how difficult the questions are, the pattern of results is guaranteed to be the same: Exactly 10 percent of those taking the test will score in the top 10 percent, and half will always fall below the median.....A good score on a NRT means ‘better than other people,’ but we don’t even know how much better. It could be that everyone’s scores are all pretty similar, in which case the distinctions between them are meaningless, rather like saying I’m the tallest person on my block even though I’m only half an inch taller than the shortest person on my block.”

Kohn explains early on in the book that standardized tests are anything but “objective.” Scores are heavily influenced by student anxiety about taking them and whether or not students give a damn about how they do on them. So, we have to ask the administrators and politicians who want dire consequences for children who score low, if they really think kids should be punished for not really caring about these tests?

Kohn points out that the tests do not assess the skills and dispositions that matter the most, such as the desire to know and to figure things out, to think independently, to read for knowledge and enjoyment. Furthermore, all children have skills and talents and different ways of expressing them. The standardized test only measures skills in a narrow band of human experience and knowledge, taking no account of the diversity of human learning. Of course, if capitalist society doesn’t have a way of turning a child’s interests, talents, and skills into profit, such attributes will be ignored, devalued, and unrecognized. (Thus, for example, the failure of California schools to offer the arts to elementary school students.)

Winners and losers

And the key point Kohn makes about these tests is, “Norm-referenced tests are not about assessing excellence; they are about sorting students (or schools) into winners and losers.” And because that sorting is the real purpose of the test, the test writers must come up with questions that lots of kids (but not all) will have to get wrong. And because the purpose of the test is sorting rather than assessing real knowledge (which cannot be assessed by multiple choice tests!), the tests emphasize “relatively unimportant knowledge that’s designed for sorting.” Kohn even charges that there is “a statistical association between high test scores on standardized tests and relatively shallow thinking.” Therefore, says Kohn, “‘teaching to the test’ isn’t going to improve the quality of education. It may have exactly the opposite effect.”

Yet “teaching to the test” is exactly what is going on in school districts that are emphasizing standardized tests as a tool for assessing student learning. Districts and states are pressuring teachers to “teach to the tests” in many ways, from financial incentives to purchasing expensive test preparation materials to demanding that teachers spend class time preparing students for the tests and numerous other methods. In California, teachers who taught in schools with improved scores on the tests in the year 2000 received bonuses close to $600 this year. “Blood money” was the label several California teachers gave this “bonus”. Teachers knew that this was money received at the expense of the children’s real education!

While Kohn recommends collective action by parents, teachers and students to combat this testing mania, his solutions fall short of how this situation could really be turned around. The real issue is the quality of public education. Standardized testing is like quality control of products rolling off a factory assembly line. But kids are not inanimate objects. They learn in many different ways and show evidence of their learning in many ways.

Teachers know how to assess important school-taught skills such as reading, writing, mathematical and science processes and procedures, etc. But in order to do authentic assessments of student understanding a teacher can’t do this with five high and middle school classes a day, each with 30 or more students, or a large elementary school class either.

What the schools do need

To improve public education in the U.S. we need smaller class sizes, (thus more teachers), better trained teachers, schools with top quality physical plants (including windows!), libraries in every school, teachers and programs to develop all aspects of the child such as physical education and the arts, health services at all school sites, childcare programs at all elementary and middle school sites to provide care and supervision for children of working parents.

To win these improvements in our schools requires a working class movement, led by the unions that in turn are led by the teachers’ unions. Unfortunately, the teachers’ unions are hamstrung in their fight to improve public education, teacher’s pay and working conditions by their alliance with the capitalist politicians of the Democratic Party. The National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union, boasts that teachers form a whopping 10% of the delegates at the national Democratic Party conventions. The teacher unions give tremendous amounts of money and provide huge numbers of teacher volunteers to get out the vote for Democrats when it’s election time. Yet the Democrats and the Republicans, taking turns in office, together have allowed public education to fail the children. Teachers union officials act surprised when the politicians they helped to put in office turn around and put the screws to the schools and the children. But when teachers organize independently to win better conditions for themselves and better schools for the children, they have enormous potential power. This potential comes from their huge numbers, their high level of unionization, and the respect they have from the working class community in general.

Public education is a right!

Public education is a right and rights have to be constantly defended. No victory is permanently assured as long as the capitalist system is in power. As long as the wealthy run society in the interests of their profits, public education will be seen as a job-training pool for the corporations, with the class divisions inherent in the capitalist system reproduced in the schools (example: norm referenced standardized testing). When the capitalists need well trained workers they give more money to public education; when they think there is a surplus of well-trained workers, they reduce the resources for the schools.

At this point we can only imagine what schools will look like in a society that puts human needs first. In such a rational society schools will provide children with the best of everything society has to offer. Alfie Kohn’s book can assure us that such schools will not be administering standardized tests.





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