I've got a thing about standardized testing.
I think it corrupts real education.
I think it applies the principles of capitalism to a distinctly
I think it's related to real education in about the same trivial
and comic way a badly calibrated rectal thermometer is related to real
I think it's an invention of Satan.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I really bombed my
You're wrong. We didn't have standardized tests when I was in the
Plains, Kansas public schools back in the forties and the fifties. We
just showed up for 12 years and if we kept our noses clean we graduated.
Then, if we wanted, we went off to collegea church school if we planned
to go to heaven, a state school if we planned to go to hell. It was
cheaper to go to hell.
And nobody ever asked us about our SAT scores. We didn't have
But despite not having any, we learned lots of neat stuff in
college. I learned that "Huck Finn" isn't a kid's book, that "Catcher in
the Rye" isn't a baseball story. I learned lots of other less important
I first took standardized tests when I was in the army. We didn't
take them very seriously because we figured they were just other military
ways to make us uncomfortable, but less uncomfortable than the VD films
And after a while we got out of the army and went back to school
on the GI Bill, and I learned about Old English and Middle English and how
they're not the same as Modern English.
And eventually I became an English teacher and I had students of
my own, many of whom did have SAT scores and were still shell-shocked by
As a teacher, I never noticed much connection between SAT scores
and how well the students could read and write.
Now I see that the President wants to hold our schools accountable
so that no child will be left behind. What he mainly means by that is
giving students more standardized tests. If they don't do well, there
will be, as the President is fond of saying, consequences.
And I see that last fall Rick Lazio visited a high school on Long
Island and congratulated the students for scoring high enough on their
standardized tests to maintain property values within the school district.
Sounds weird, but it's true. High test scores make property in
the district more expensive. Low test scores devalue property and result
in less funding. Capitalism applied to education. Run a cost-benefit
analysis on your school.
And guess what? The rich get rich and the poor get poorer.
Alfie Kohn, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education last
month, argues that "The SAT is a measure of resources more than of
reasoning" because of the correlation between test scores and family
income. Tests, he says, don't measure the size of students' intellects so
much as the size of the houses they grew up in.
The Truth, Mainly
There was a time when free public education was the great leveling
force of American society. Now we have standardized testing.
It not only de-democratizes education, it wastes class time.
The president of the University of California, Richard Atkinson,
opposes the use of the SAT as an admission requirement. He visited his
grandchildren's school to find 12-year-olds being drilled in exercises
that, he said, were "not aimed at developing the students' reading and
writing abilities but rather their test-taking skills."
For teachers, the really scary thing is the possibility raised by
William Raspberry in his column a week ago: that their merit raises be
based on their students' test scores.
Hardly any teachers I know believe standardized test scores are
any real measure of the quality of education going on in their
classrooms. It's more likely the opposite: the less you know about what
goes on inside a classroom, the more confident you are that education can
be reformed by more testing.
The attraction, of course, is that you can put numbers on such
tests. Numbers are unambiguous, easy to understand, and they make nifty
graphs. Never mind what they do to the morale of teachers who suspend
their disbelief, teach to the tests, and pretend something educational is
Real education is a series of epiphanies, near-religious
revelations that radically change our perceptions. For example, in
English, the writing assignment that forces us to stretch further than we
ever imagined stretching, the reading assignment that opens up new worlds
of vicarious experience beyond anything we ever imagined back in Kansas.
But you can't put numbers on epiphanies. How many SAT points for
a smallish epiphany? How does a medium epiphany affect property values?
Foolish questions. Devil's work. I've got a thing about
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail