Tag Archives: high-stakes testing

Ignored Problems with Standardized Tests

Marion Brady is one of the most insightful and intelligent commentators I know on the educational landscape, and one reason he is long-time columnist for the Knight-Ridder Tribune. One of my favorite quotes (and I have a lot of them from Marion!) is this one from last October in the Washington Post:

“Common sense says that getting schooling right begins with getting the curriculum right, but that fact doesn’t seem to have occurred to the business leaders and politicians—educational amateurs all—now pulling the education policy strings. Instead of funding a rethinking of the blueprint, the map, the pattern, the model, they’ve spent billions locking a deeply flawed curriculum in rigid, permanent place with the Common Core State Standards.”

[Washington Post October 17, 2014. Valerie Strauss.]

One reason I wanted to feature this newest piece by Marion is because it is the first time I have seen such a list (33 items) detailing the unaddressed issues with standardized testing. The runaway train of awarding more and more weight and prestige to such a flawed system can spell nothing but eventual catastrophe. There are already casualties: Many teachers – good teachers – are leaving the field because they no longer can teach creatively. That has been replaced with teaching to, and prepping students for, fairly meaningless AND unreliable tests. Further, test results have achieved the rank of “The Hatchet” in decision-making about students, teachers, administrators, schools, and, yes, even states.

Yes, boiling all of anything down to a single test score IS convenient…no debate. Just because something is convenient does not make it worthwhile. Read Marion’s monograph and see more explicitly for yourselves. If you are an advocate for opting out this article will add a lot to your knowledge base of supporting information.

Anthony Dallmann-Jones, PhD, Editor


Constricting High Stakes Testing

Constricting High Stakes Testing


Standardized Tests: Ignored Problems

by Marion Brady

As my students were taking their seats, Myrna, sitting near my desk, said she’d just read a magazine article about secret societies in high school. What, she asked, did I know about them?

I knew nothing—had never even heard of them—but the matter was interesting enough to quickly engage my 11th Grade English class, so I let the conversation continue. Someone suggested making it a research project and I told them to have at it.

The school library wasn’t much help, but somebody figured out how to contact the student editor of the school newspaper in a town mentioned in the article and wrote her a letter. She answered, other contacts were made, and kid-to-kid communication began. How did the societies get started? Who joined them? Why? How? Did they create problems? If so, what kind? Were the societies more than just temporary cliques? How were teachers and administrators reacting?

Answers generated more questions. My students thought, wrote, took sides, argued, learned. I mostly watched.

That happened in a class in a semi-rural high school in northeastern Ohio. The participants—those still alive—are now almost eighty years old. I’d be willing to bet that if any of them remember anything at all about the class, that research project would be it.

I wasn’t smart enough to realize it at the time, but I was seeing a demonstration of something extremely important, that real learning is natural and inherently satisfying. Myrna’s question kicked off genuine learning—self-propelled and successful not because the work was rigorous and the kids had grit, but because it was driven by curiosity, because satisfaction was immediate, because it was real-world rather than theoretical, because it was concrete rather than abstract, because it required initiative and action, and because it was genuinely important, dealing as it did with complex social and psychological issues shaping human behavior.

Even if it leads to dead ends, research—at least for the learner pursuing it—is intellectually productive. It’s also, obviously, non-standard. The skills it develops and the insights it yields aren’t predictable, even to those engaged in it. That’s one of the reasons standardized tests assembled in the office cubicles of Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other test manufacturers can’t do the job that most needs doing. They can’t measure and attach a meaningful number to the quality of original thought.

Arthur Costa, Emeritus Professor, California State University, summed up the thrust of current test-based “reform’ madness: “What was educationally significant and hard to measure has been replaced by what is educationally insignificant and easy to measure. So now we measure how well we taught what isn’t worth learning.”

The truth of that isn’t acknowledged by Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, Lou Gerstner, Arne Duncan and the other business leaders and politicians responsible for initiating and perpetuating the standardized, high-stakes testing craziness. They either can’t see or won’t admit the shallowness of their claim that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Challenged, they dismiss those who disagree with them as defenders of the status quo.

Using the scores on standardized tests to shape the life chances of kids, determine the pay and reputations of teachers, gauge the quality of school administrators, establish the worth of neighborhood schools, or as an excuse to hand public schools over to private, profit-taking corporations is, at the very least, irresponsible. If, as it appears, it’s a sneaky scheme to privatize America’s public schools without broad public dialogue, it’s unethical.

Figuring out how to measure original thought isn’t the only challenge test manufacturers need to address. Their tests:

– Provide minimal to no useful feedback to classroom teachers
– Are keyed to a deeply flawed curriculum adopted in 1893
– Lead to neglect of physical conditioning, music, art, and other, non-verbal ways of learning
– Unfairly advantage those who can afford test prep
– Hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring
– Penalize test-takers who think in non-standard ways (which the young frequently do)
– Radically limit teacher ability to adapt to learner differences
– Give control of the curriculum to test manufacturers
– Encourage use of threats, bribes, and other extrinsic motivators
– Use arbitrary, subjectively-set pass-fail cut scores
– Produce scores which can be (and sometimes are) manipulated for political purposes
– Assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known
– Emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance
– Create unreasonable pressures to cheat
– Reduce teacher creativity and the appeal of teaching as a profession
– Are unavoidably biased by social-class, ethnic, regional, and other cultural differences
– Lessen concern for and use of continuous evaluation
– Have no “success in life” predictive power
– Unfairly channel instructional resources to learners at or near the pass-fail “cut score”
– Are open to massive scoring errors with life-changing consequences
– Are at odds with deep-seated American values about individuality and worth
– Create unnecessary stress and negative attitudes toward learning
– Perpetuate the artificial compartmentalization of knowledge by field
– Channel increasing amounts of tax money into corporate coffers instead of classrooms
– Waste the vast, creative potential of human variability
– Block instructional innovations that can’t be evaluated by machine
– Unduly reward mere ability to retrieve secondhand information from memory
– Subtract from available instructional time
– Lend themselves to “gaming”—use of strategies to improve the success-rate of guessing
– Make time—a parameter largely unrelated to ability—a factor in scoring
– Create test fatigue, aversion, and an eventual refusal to take tests seriously
– Undermine the fact that those closest to the work are best-positioned to evaluate it
– Doesn’t work. The National Academy of Sciences, 2011 report to Congress: The use of standardized tests “has not increased student achievement.”

Most people—including many educators—don’t object to standardized tests, just think there are too many, or the stakes shouldn’t be so high, or that some items aren’t grade-level appropriate, etc.

I disagree. I think standardized tests are not just a monumental waste of money and time, but are destroying the institution and the profession in a myriad of unsuspected ways. Responsibility for evaluating learner performance—all of it—should be returned to those best positioned to do it: Classroom teachers. Period.


Marion Brady is a retired teacher and school administrator. He is a college professor, textbook and professional book author, and consultant to publishers and foundations, and a long-time newspaper columnist for Knight-Ridder/Tribune.

[Purchase your copy of the new book everyone is talking about, Fixing Public Education, on our Products page. Reduced price will not last much longer!]

Test scores are God in education! (Well there goes church & state separation!)

ZAK Comic Wizard of Oz in School

ZAK Comic
Wizard of Oz in School

More and more United States schools are having to import international teachers to fill faculty vacancies.

First of all, I have no objections to Filipino teachers coming to USA to teach in American schools. One of the best professors I know is my colleague Aida from the Philippines. She gives 120% of herself to her teaching and students. Smart, smart educator and with a law degree, too!

What I do have an objection to is that no one has listened enough to act on what the current high-stakes testing trends are doing to the profession of teaching. Superintendent of Casa Grande High School in Arizona had 19 teacher openings and not a single applicant. The state has 527 unfilled positions 25% into the year and is listed at ‘the crisis level’ officially. Superintendent Goodsell had to troll Skype to find teachers in the Phillipines, finally hiring 11 new teachers willing to move to the US on 3 year visas to help fill openings. Arizona is showing the strain because they pay their teachers like some states pay aides, yet expect more.

[Start: Quote from District Administrator periodical: Submitted by Ariana Fine Thursday, October 2, 2014, The Arizona Republic newspaper]

“Observers like Deb Duvall, executive director of the school administrators association, and Mari Koerner, dean of Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, say that because the economy has improved, many are leaving teaching for jobs that pay more and are less stressful.

“You can do almost anything else for $30,000,” Koerner said. “Your salary is a sign of how much you are valued. A low salary means you are not valued, that you are easily replaceable.”

In 2012, the most-recent year for which numbers were available, the average starting salary for an Arizona public-school teacher was $31,874, according to the Arizona Education Association, the state’s branch of the National Education Association.

Duvall said increasing pressure on teachers to spend time collecting student-performance data and drilling students to perform well on standardized tests also is driving some from the profession.

“Many people go into teaching because they want to interact with students,” she said. “But there is less time for that.””

[End quote.]

A graduate student of mine, an active teacher, recently told me that in her Wisconsin school they spend six-weeks drilling for state tests. “Plus every teacher’s professional day is about increasing test scores. Every parent-teacher conference is about increasing test scores,” she states.

Test scores are becoming God in education.

Ever wonder if it is all worthwhile? Ever wonder if a single test score truly measures learning about how to be successful at life – the real purpose of education? How did this happen? Do you think it was astute, intelligent educators who decided for our kids that testing on common core standards was the answer to low school performance? No, it was not. It was politicians’ anxious posturing and corporate America’s greed – seeing education as the last cash cow in the USA – that has driven us to this supposed “accountability movement” in our country.  A LOT of money is being made by setting up education as a game to be won.

So, what is wrong with that? Some cramming and testing and we find out who the crappy teachers are and weed them out! Right? Let us examine this for a moment.

Tell me: What makes up a race? How do you define a race, whether a 1000 meter foot race in track or a 500 mile car race on a track, or any competitive sport like that? What is a race composed of? Correct! A winner and a bunch of losers. Those are the components of a race. One winner, but mostly losers. When Arne Duncan announced that instead of No Child Left Behind we would have ‘A Race to the Top’ my heart dropped. He had just created a playing field REQUIRING a bunch of losers. The game was a set up to make more losers than winners. Nice thoughtless move, Mr. Duncan.

To make it worse, any ed. researcher will tell you that all that work to crank out a minority of winners is worth – well, not much even if it is valid (measuring what you want it to measure) and reliable (consistent in that measurement). While you are struggling to get a high mark on a standardized test, whose value is highly questionable, what else are you missing out on? What could you be learning that would support you in having a successful life?

And think on this: All statistics in anything, including education, rests on distance from the average. We measure to see if things are better, worse or stayed the same and by how much compared to the average score. Now, assuming that a test score contributes anything towards a student’s life of possible success, we average the scores and measure how far junior is from the average. Stop right there: As soon as you designate the “average score” know that 50% of the scores (representing people) MUST be designated as “below average”. That is what the average is. The average IQ is 100: Half of the population has an IQ below average. Half of anything is below average. Half the drivers are below average. Half the lovers are below average. Half the population is shorter than average. We set the playing field to deliberately create that shockingly (yet highly predictable) inferior group labeled “below average.” Shudder, shame, shudder.

We are not THINKING! Education is supposed to make us better THINKERS.

Oh, but I forgot for a second: Half of us are below average thinkers…don’t expect anything from us until we put on those thinking caps we crammed for!

Anthony Dallmann-Jones – Editor

*Arizona starts teachers with a take home pay of about $26,000 a year. How do you live, as a college graduate professional, on $500 a week – usually with college loans to pay on, car payments, rent and living expenses? Not very well. After about 15 years of teaching you reach the average top level in Arizona teacher pay: About $100 a week higher from your take home pay as a starting teacher a decade and a half earlier. Meanwhile, the cost of living has gone up 10 – 15%. It is not difficult to understand why many smart teachers are flocking away from the educational profession, is it? No respect, low pay, and lots of drilling with discouraged, bored students for tests no one enjoys preparing for or taking and whose results are fairly useless.

NOTE: Special Recognition goes out to ZAK, popular comic/cartoonist, for his contribution in this months Editorial to this website’s cause to bring sanity to education.