The Truth, Mainly - 04/30/2001

Standardized Testing is a Satanic Invention
by Leon Satterfield

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 non-capitalistic enterprise.

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 medicine.

I think it's an invention of Satan.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I really bombed my SATs.

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 college—a 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 any.

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 things too.

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 made us.

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 them.

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.

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 happening.

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 standardized tests.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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