To Test or Not to Test: Why is it even a question?

(Updated 5-7-15 Because, to be fair, I learned we can access our students scores almost immediately – I address the issue later on)

It’s been a while since I’ve “rattled my saber” at anyone which sounds either ominous or vulgar.  I am opting for the ominous version.  What am I talking about?  State testing or SAGE.  Why is this post ominous? Well, considering I’m a public educator in the state of Utah where we get zero support from our union and nasty repercussions can take place, it’s not a wise idea for me to continue this.  However, no one ever accused me of being wise.

According to Time, the origins of standardized testing go back to China where “hopefuls for government jobs had to fill out examinations testing their knowledge of Confucian philosophy and poetry.”  Time goes on to say we in the Western world decided to favor the Greeks affinity for the Socratic method by choosing essay formats.  However, essays are arduous and subjective to grade. This gave birth to the necessity of the Multiple-Choice or Bubble Test.

The origins of this infamous test can be traced to Dr. Robert Yerkes.  This psychologist sold the idea of multiple-choice tests being used to measure the intelligence of recruits during WW I.  The idea was to “improve the efficiency of evaluating men by moving away from time-consuming written and oral examinations.” This is according to the research of Ainissa Ramirez in Edutopia.  The army went on to test 1.7 million recruits to give it a legitimate go at the test; however, when the results came in the Army found no value in the data it provided.

Dr. Yerkes omitted this little factoid when he sold the idea of these tests to educational testing outfits in the United States. They believed in their validity since it came through the psychological profession.  This act and belief cemented the integral role of psychology in education and industry.  The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) began to be required starting in 1926.  It lives and breathes still today.

Multiple-choice questions and their ugly, step children True/False questions quickly became a staple in testing students’ learning and comprehension.  They are tolerable when being used to define who is college-ready and who is not.  There is still the problem with students who are very intelligent and know the material but do not test well in a formal format.  I’m not going to go down that road.  I want to focus on multiple-choice and true/false tests being used for State testing.

With the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2001, states began to scramble for a way to measure results in a timely and cost-efficient manner.  President Bush always gets the blame for NCLB but, for those of us who can remember, it’s closer to the truth that Senator Ted Kennedy and other Democrat politicians had more to do with it.  In EdSource, Rep. George Miller D-Martinez, CA said says he never anticipated federal law would force testing obsession.  He also happens to corroborate my earlier statement of who wrote NCLB. He said, “The purpose of the 2001 law that he co-wrote with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Republicans Rep. John Boehner of Ohio and Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire was to inspire a broader discussion of how children learn and to hold states responsible for ensuring that all students were learning, especially those at risk of failing due to income, ethnicity, race and disability.”

It sounds reasonable when described this way but the problem became quickly evident when the law went on to require 100% of students pass a state test with proficiency by 2014. This gave education 13 years but the idea of everyone being proficient is ludicrous when gender, socio-economic, and innate abilities are taken into account.  Not everyone learns the same or produces what they know the same but states had to come up with an instrument to measure that everyone was at the same point.

The fallout of the past thirteen years has been an ever growing push to “teach to the test.”  School districts around the country have been cutting elective programs to make time for more remediation to prepare for the almighty state test.  Oh, no educator will say in a public venue that we are teaching to the test but the fact remains we are.

One of the few redeeming qualities of this kind of test is using the data it produces to figure out what the students need to be retaught.  This year is new in that teachers can access their students’ scores almost immediately; however, the process seems more designed toward accessing percentages of proficiency than anything else.  Once again, the cart is before the horse.  We find out what the students don’t know yet and have no time to fix the issue.

In many states, including Utah, the legislature is now tying the results of testing into teacher pay.  If all students were created the same then this might be barely fair but, alas, they are not all the same.  The backgrounds are different, the parents or guardians are different, and the abilities are different depending on the location of the school boundaries.

No one seems to be talking about this but the logical result of this approach will be for good teachers to go to good schools and what happens to the schools where the students aren’t supported as well and there isn’t a “Escalante-esque” teacher available?  These schools will be shut down and taken over by the state.  The state doesn’t want to run it so they will turn to the private sector just like they have for prisons, VA hospitals, and other institutions that are now big business instead of public services.

Here’s the dirty little secret I’ve been leading up to in this tirade.  Whether it was the plan from the beginning or became the plan after the impossibility of NCLB came up, state governments want public schools to fail because they want to privatize education.  Education run like a business is their goal.  We’ve already heard the comparisons.  We’re “producing” a “product” in the form of a successful student.  If we aren’t producing then we shouldn’t be in business.  It’s highly doubtful that the widgets in the widget factory rebel against being produced or manufactured. Bottom line?  State testing is a waste of money, time, and resources if the goal is to improve the education of students.  However, if the goal is the privatization of education then it’s right on the mark.

…and so it goes.


Published by: Kent A. Larson

Kent Larson was born in Phoenix, Arizona with a neurological condition known as Spina Bifida. He has partially paralyzed legs and uses a wheelchair to get around most places but uses a cane at home. He graduated from Camelback High School in Phoenix and moved the next day to Sandy, Utah where he would begin attending BYU. Having started with a Theater Directing major, he switched after his LDS mission to English Secondary Teaching. This change was precipitated by interest in a better job for raising a family. He married and has enjoyed thirty years with Melanie McKay. They were blessed with two sets of twins. Andrew and Erin are now twenty-seven. The younger set of twins are boys, not identical, Sean and Steven are twenty-two. Kent has been teaching secondary for nearly three decades since graduating with a BA in 1989 and still enjoys it. After teaching for ten years, he went back and got a Masters in Educational Leadership. He had flirted with idea of going into administration for the better pay but realized he would miss his students too much. He has taught all grades from seventh to twelfth. He enjoys teaching seventh grade the most because they are earlier on in their educations where it is easier to instill good habits in them. His interests include writing, reading, theater, movies, and many other forms of entertainment. He is often heard joking that he is only a "visitor" in this reality.

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One thought on “To Test or Not to Test: Why is it even a question?”

  1. You and your saber rattling! I like this, though, it makes a lot of sense to me. It made me think of a movie I watched recently, too; “Freedom Writers.” The schools that are challenged don’t deserve the great teachers.

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