As it turns out, I’m a horrible libertarian: I’m allowing my kids to take New York State’s standardized tests. The first of these, the English Language Arts, are being administered this week, and the math version will follow in a few weeks, after spring break.
Given my social media contacts, I’ve seen a lot of — well, bragging, frankly, from people who have allowed (“forced” might be a better term) their kids not to take the standardized tests. Such bragging is typically administered with a lot of grumbling, specifically about Common Core and more generally about the alleged harm of standardized testing on our children.
I certainly have my concerns with Common Core, but the more I thought about it, the less convinced I have become that opting out of present standardized tests will effect any change. In fact, most of the arguments are somewhat nebulous and vague, and it’s unclear exactly how the people expect opting out will make the situation better.
With that in mind, below I present some responses to common objections to standardized testing used by people who advocate opting out. These are not necessarily intended to be rebuttals, but additional points of consideration. Rather than citing specific comments I’ve seen, I’m taking the wording of these objections from the New York page of United Opt Out, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending standardized testing. I am grouping the objections according to my own responses.
The objections in this category are presented as follows:
Standardized testing takes away approximately 25% of our children’s academic school year.
Standardized testing gives teachers incentives to “teach to the test” instead of nurturing higher order thinking skills.
Standardized testing costs millions of dollars of taxpayer money to produce and thousands of dollars of our school district’s money to implement.
Standardized testing encourages our best teachers to seek other careers where their expertise is valued.
Standardized testing gives teachers incentive to care more about their teacher evaluation than they do about children.
Here’s the thing, though: Having your kid refuse to take the tests doesn’t change any of these things. The tests still occur, time will still be spent in preparation for them, money will still be spent to produce and implement them, the teachers who “teach to the test” will still teach to the test, and those who don’t like it will still leave.
In fact, even if these objections are accurate, having a kid refuse to take the test may actually be harmful to the child herself, because it decouples the things she is learning from the specific goal of learning them. The objections above acknowledge that incentives matter, a position I agree with, but they fail to acknowledge student incentives. Many children are themselves incentivized to learn by testing — not the best incentive, obviously, but a realistic one. If a child knows she won’t have to take a particular test, she may believe she doesn’t have to learn the facts or techniques required for that test. In the long run, such willful ignorance is likely more harmful than helpful, especially since kids may be unable to discern what is being “taught to the test” from the knowledge and information that will help them over the longer course of their educational careers.
Another objection is that “standardized testing teaches that there is only one right answer in academics and in life.” There are two responses that obviate this.
First, in many cases, there is only one right answer in academics and in life. For example, two plus two will almost always add up the same way, and the primary definitions of most words will not change drastically during a single person’s lifetime. There are also plenty of situations where a clearly “right” answer exists, even if there’s no objectively correct answer. Ever hear the phrase “The customer is always right”? And most people who want to keep their jobs will perform the tasks their boss assigns in the way that boss wants them performed.
Second, reductivist answers also appear in nonstandardized testing. Many textbooks simplify concepts for students without giving the full historical, political, scientific or other contexts. Anyone who has gone to school has learned from the experience, and often disappointment, of being “wrong” on a test when in fact you were right. The good news is that the further you go in school, the more this tendency diminishes. By the time we become adults, most of us have at least some understanding that life is more complicated than a multiple choice test.
Finally, there’s a relatively easy remedy: Encourage your kids to learn on their own and ask questions. Kids who are given, or find, incentive to explore the world beyond the walls of school, will be much happier and better able to handle the nuances of life than kids who don’t. If you’re relying on school to singularly instill a desire for learning in your kids, then you’re the one relying on a “right” answer.
The next set of objections are as follows:
Standardized testing is creating corruption among schools where school districts are cheating on test scores.
Standardized testing is creating corruption among students where students are purposefully scoring poorly to negatively affect teachers they don’t like.
Corruption is a real problem at all levels of society, as evidenced by the recent Air Force cheating scandal. It might even be true that standardized testing encourages or exacerbates corruption and cheating.
However, it’s unclear how having kids refuse to take the test prevents such corruption. It seems unlikely that students who would vindictively score low on a test out of vitriol for their teachers would automatically become better people without standardized testing. More likely, they would find other ways to express their malice. Similarly, school district officials who are okay with manipulating test scores are likely corrupt in other ways as well.
This is not to say that such corruption should not be investigated and dealt with. These are serious situations, and we all have the right and responsibility to resolve them. But having a child refuse to take a test does not, and cannot, resolve any of this corruption.
Harm to Students
The final objection is the only one that suggests specific harm to students: “Standardized testing is developmentally destructive for specific age groups.” As stated, this argument is nebulous at best. I don’t have any data, nor could I find anything more specific than vaguely worded statements like this. If anyone can point me to concrete information, such as statistics or a study of some type, I would be happy to tackle this objection in more detail.
I have many objections to standardized testing (though, not standardization in general), and someday I might expound on them. Some of the objections raised by advocacy groups such as United Opt Out are certainly valid, and they need to be addressed.
That said, I find no reason to believe that refusing to take a test will help students in any way. As shown above, in some cases refusal could be actively harmful to the student.
It seems that the main motivation of people who object to standardized testing is to raise awareness about specific problems, both real and perceived, by having their kids refuse that testing. To me, using kids as pawns in political agendas is just as bad as, if not worse than, any of the objections raised above, especially since those objections revolve around using kids as pawns in political agendas. (The final objection on United Opt Out’s list is, “Standardized testing uses our children as tools to evaluate school districts, schools and teachers.”)
Even if having children refuse to take the test results in some awareness, or even change, the method is flawed. Write letters and blog posts and emails, call politicians, organize rallies — even get your kids involved in all of those things with you. But for goodness’ sake, don’t think that having your kid refuse to take a test is somehow going to change the system. It won’t. It can’t.