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Measuring what matters least

Testing should require thought, not regurgitation

In the United States, standardized testing has become the beast of an old horror movie, swallowing up our educational system’s time, money and freedom. People still insist that this beast is really doing society a favor by making its victims more “accountable,” but the data is not supporting that statement. Rather, standardized tests prove to be inadequate measures of educational prowess and rob students of a full and robust education in the name of equality and security.

Standardized tests have always been a part of our educational system, but we have become solely focused on their use as a result of 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates annual testing in all 50 states. Scores are then used to help determine curriculum and teachers’ salaries as well as students’ placement within the educational system. How would you feel if the direction of your child’s education was altered solely due to sub-par testing qualities?

NCLB also allows for the ranking of schools: those that have higher, more “proficient” scores receive more funding and teacher bonuses.

This standardized testing beast is devouring our teachers’ curriculums and robbing children of their childhoods by reducing play time in favor of study time. NCLB testing begins in third grade, but schools test younger students to familiarize them with the tests. School administrators discard subjects and topics that are not included on the tests and even reduce recess in lieu of study time.

On Sept. 11, 2002, students at Monterey High School in Lubbock, Texas, were prevented from discussing the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks because they were too busy with standardized-test preparation. Obviously, it is far more important to prepare students for exams than teach them about influential events in U.S. history. Many question whether this testing-centric approach will do the exact opposite of its intent in the future: creating brainwashed pupils who can enumerate facts instead of human beings capable of reason and resourcefulness.

The educational system is supposed to prepare students for life; however, standardized testing is doing the inverse. The multiple-choice format encourages a simplistic way of thinking so that there are only right and wrong answers, which isn’t applicable to the real world.

The late educational researcher Gerald W. Bracey points out that current standardized tests cannot measure “creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty or integrity.”

Now, which of the following skills are more important in life: Being able to regurgitate 20 or so complex physics equations but not be able to use them appropriately, or being able to use the resources in one’s environment to find the necessary information and be able to appropriately apply it?

Many believe that despite the aforementioned evidence, by assessing students by the same standards, everyone is provided with an equal opportunity to succeed. However, in the attempt to use standardized testing to create equal opportunity by teaching and assessing students by the same criteria, we are demoting individual freedom by forcing teachers to only instruct skills and subjects that will help students succeed on tests.

The libertarian philosopher Milton Friedman speaks of how “a society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

Michael Sandel, professor of philosophy at Harvard University and author of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, summarizes this viewpoint of individual freedom as follows: “Only a minimal state – one that enforces contracts, protects private property from theft and keeps the peace – is compatible with the libertarian theory of rights. Any state that does more than this is morally unjustified.”

NCLB oversteps these boundaries and infringes on students’ rights to develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Although I’m not against testing in general, it is important to understand where students stand in their individual developmental processes. If the equal standards that students are held to won’t be prevalent in their adult lives, we are inflicting unnecessary stress upon our youths and stifling their ability to succeed in the future. Students – and society – would prosper more in the long run if students and teachers had the ability to learn and teach as they see fit, better preparing students for life outside school walls.

Understandably, we can’t just do away with testing, but we can reform it. For multiple years, Finland has topped the Programme for International Student Assessment ratings and yet has “no external standardized test used to rank students or schools,” according to Stanford University researchers Linda Darling-Hammond and Laura McCloskey. Finland’s success has been achieved not by drilling students to regurgitate information, but instead by using assessments that “encourage students to be active learners who can find, analyze and use information to solve problems in novel situations.”

We should alter our nation’s standardized testing system so that students are presented with a few scenarios and are asked to use the resources provided to them in order to find and derive the appropriate answers. With this approach, much like in Finland, teachers would be stimulating our children’s critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which is essential to modern survival just as fire was back in the Stone Age.

By reforming standardized testing to focus on the development of relevant skills that will assist students throughout the rest of their lives, we can transform the standardized testing beast into a Swiss Army knife for life.

Nick Tarasewicz is an Animas High School junior in Ashley Carruth’s humanities class.

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