Press-Republican

April 3, 2013

In My Opinion: Standardized tests about making money

By ROBERT L. ARNOLD
Press-Republican

---- — Experts agree, what should be abundantly clear about the use of standardized tests is that statistically based, oversimplified measures of performance are unable to account for the complexity in educational systems or account for the variety of individual learning outcomes.

While there are available today field-tested methods of individualized assessment and evaluation, utilizing modern systems theory and computer technologies, we see widespread use of oversimplified performance measures (standardized tests), which have created a genuine crisis in our systems of education, in our students and with their families.

Mental health and a one-size-fits-all assessment and evaluation scheme are incompatible, as is mandated knowledge that “authorities” claim we all must know.

Are people at the top (including educators who ought to know better) ignorant of what has been widely known and validated by in-depth studies and understood intuitively by observant teachers and parents? There are no two people alike in this world — not their DNA, their experiences or what they have done with their experiences.

If promoters of standardization in education understood and acted upon the truths of individual human differences, would they promote a one-size-fits-all assessment, evaluation and common-core curriculum?

Or do they have a different agenda — one wrapped in rhetoric that sounds legitimate but masks their real intent?

Why haven’t decision-makers at the state and federal levels acknowledged the opportunities and importance of individual differences? There is a simple but troublesome answer.

Standardization is needed for the mass production and marketing of educational products, such as textbooks, worksheets, tests, toys, equipment, software, training etc. etc.

Corporate and financial interests need to standardize education to reap the benefits of a huge market potential.

Today, with the blessings of decision makers at the highest levels, a branch of a British conglomerate Pearson America reaps huge profits from sales of its “canned” and standardized educational products.

Check the fine print on most of the worksheets sent home. The company has also been given authority to shape the design of the tests to be used to supposedly “validate” their effectiveness.

Pearson is contracted by our governmental agencies to train an army of test evaluators, reportedly paid $12 an hour to determine whether a school and its personnel are doing their jobs effectively — defined as raising the scores on coercive high-stakes standardized tests.

This marketplace was opened through the charter-school legislation where corporations, even foreign corporations, are running schools for profit, supported by the widespread adoption of the Common Core Curriculum by state governments, education departments, even teachers’ unions. All of these groups have supported a wholesale endorsement of standardized testing.

We cannot overlook the fact that the present system of education is in need of a serious update, beyond just changing the rhetoric and improving past practices. Nor can we overlook the fact that many in decision-making positions within our local schools have a need and the opportunity to preserve much of the status quo.

But, in this top-down movement, administrators, board members and especially teachers at the local level have almost no power to change or even significantly influence its direction.

Principles of modern systems design suggest the whole system must be studied and changed to ensure genuine compatibility between the organization and conduct of the school and what we know and can validate about individual human development and learning.

This will require a commitment to engage in far more grassroots dialogue than occurred when the decisions were made to launch the present movement to standardize the curriculum and assess and evaluate student performance using standardized tests.

It will certainly require far more action to change the direction of these ill-advised decisions in education made at the top, if legitimate change is going to happen in our local schools.

Organizing public forums such as those under way in local areas and across this land is a step in the right direction. We must capitalize upon the willingness to entertain a theory-based, honest and open-ended inquiry into the conduct of education.

And most importantly, we must find the “guts,” the stamina and the expertise to effect legitimate reforms to be initiated at the local level. 

Robert L. Arnold, who lives in Willsboro, is professor emeritus of education from SUNY Plattsburgh, has 60 years of experience as teacher and researcher at all levels of education and is creator of the website remakingourschoolsforthe21stcentury.com.