Apparently, there’s some brouhaha over standardized testing in schools. Earlier today, a friend posted a link to an article about parents in Central New York telling their children to refuse to take standardized tests, and it seems it’s not just a local phenomenon. The question is, why?
Opponents of the testing say it stresses students, provides limited measurement of a child’s capabilities, takes away valuable teaching time that inspires creativity and shares personal information with private companies that provide the tests.
These are legitimate concerns, it seems to me. Certainly, I’m all for not wasting anyone’s time and stressing people out, regardless of whether they are children. And I agree that standardized tests are, at best, a snapshot, and at worst they’re a fuzzy, out-of-focus snapshot taken with an old Polaroid in a poorly lit room — which is not the sort of snapshot any parent wants to have taken of their child.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if encouraging your child to not take the test really does anything useful. It certainly doesn’t stop the testing, and I have a hard time believing that the few kids who actually follow through with refusing to take the test (which is undoubtedly smaller than the number of kids who tell their parents that they refused to take the test) will make a statistically significant dent in the actual results of the standardized test itself. Which means that the gesture itself is largely symbolic.
Don’t get me wrong, as a libertarian who studies literature, I’m all for symbolic gestures. In high school, I rarely stood for the daily recital of the pledge of allegiance — but I’d be lying if I said it was a symbolic gesture. I just thought reciting a daily pledge to an inanimate piece of colored cloth was dumb. I still do, which is why I don’t put my hand over my heart or sing along with the national anthem at sports games (though, I do typically stand, but that’s just because I don’t see a need to purposefully provoke the uber-patriotic drunks that tend to cluster in such arenas.) But where was I? Ah, yes, symbolic gestures.
When making a symbolic gesture, it’s important to understand who is actually making the gesture. Having your kid make a symbolic gesture because you believe something isn’t really a symbolic gesture – it’s a forced gesture. There are times when it’s necessary to make your kids do things; forcing your kids to promote your own political ideas through useless acts of “civil disobedience” at the risk of making them targets of ridicule by their peers, not to mention possible disciplinary action by their teachers or school administrators, doesn’t seem to be a valid one.
The concerns about using student and teacher time more effectively hit home. But one of the concerns that I don’t get is the one about private companies possibly using the data gathered by standardized tests. The irony here is that this is stated by people who give their full names in a publicly-viewable news story (published by a private company) that tells people the school district that their children attend….
Maybe privacy isn’t so much of a concern as the fact that the data itself is being used by private companies for their own nefarious capitalistic needs. If that’s the case, then I’m curious as to how these parents think such data should be used.
Publicly collected data is used by private companies all the time. A variety of public information — from FBI crime statistics to GAO reports to the FDA “Orange Book” (hint: it’s not about oranges) to the CIA World Factbook — are used by all kinds of people, including those who work for private companies, for many different reasons. In fact, such data-gathering and public dissemination of information is one of the more useful aspects of government, in my opinion.
Perhaps the concern is more specific than simply using publicly collated data. Standardized tests are forced upon a captured audience of minors. This is BAD™. Because, you know, 1984 and stuff. As a “society,” maybe we shouldn’t allow our children to be used as a data mine for private companies. Sure, I can get behind that.
However, such an argument seems a bit disingenuous if you don’t take a further step back. The problem is with the very idea of mandatory schoolin’ to begin with. You can’t force someone to take a standardized test in school if you’re not already forcing them to go to school.
The arguments that constantly bemuse me are those in which people say, “Government sucks, we need more government.” This is precisely the argument of former Westhill High School teacher Gerald Conti, whose resignation letter recently reached the The Washington Post. He makes some really great points about the focus of data-driven STEM pursuits, versus more liberal (in the historical, non-political sense) approaches to education. He then goes on to point out what he sees as the failures of various administrative programs, policies and procedures, summing up with a dire obituary to the profession of Teaching:
My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic “assessments”) or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case.
The irony here isn’t the ending quip, but the fact that Mr. Conti, or anybody else, expects anything different from a government-run system. A system that fails at every level, as Mr. Conti rightly argues, is by definition a failed system. Mr. Conti and his peers want to be trusted to teach as they see fit. But they don’t want to give up the money that their schools get when they participate in such testing….
Conti, and those who argue similar points, seem to reject the idea that education could work without government. However, you can’t have freedom without untethering yourself from the thing that keeps you bounded. If you want public education, then you have accept the encumbrance of public education. “Changing the system” is just another way of saying you wish to be bound differently, not be set free.
Since I’m not one of those libertarians who engages in fantasies about getting rid of the Department of Education, or that even such a move would improve the types of school-related administrative problems people seem to like complaining about, I can’t really provide an alternative solution. The only solace I can take is that I don’t really remember being particularly traumatized by the various standardized tests I took in the seven school districts across three northeastern states where I lived growing up. About all I hope at this point is that my kids will be able to get over it, too. They’re certainly smart enough to do it, and I suspect they probably will.