Heresy! A Teacher Likes A Standardized Test

Earlier today, I referenced an interview with Jonathan Kozol, the education reformer who, along with his stirring critique of economic inequality in our schools, has consistently opposed the negative repercussions of standardized testing. In this latest interview, Kozol said:

The testing agenda that Duncan is perpetuating is segregative and divisive in yet another sense. In inner-city schools, where principals are working with a sword of threats and punishments above their heads — for fear that they’ll be fired if they cannot “pump the scores” — they inevitably strip down the curriculum to those specific items that are going to be tested, often devoting two-thirds of the year to prepping children for exams….

So culture is starved. Aesthetics are gone. Joy in learning is regarded as a bothersome distraction. “These kids don’t have time for joy, or whim, or charm, or inquiry! Leave whim and happiness to the children of the privileged.

It’s devastating, and as cheating scandals across the nation have helped demonstrate, it’s true. There is incredible pressure in school districts across the nation to prove proficiency on these tests, even though there are so many logistical and theoretical problems with them.

That thought in mind, I happened across the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress sample questions for 2010 today. I expected to find the kind of questions I hate to give as a teacher—soulless, rudimentary exercises in effort rather than intellect. Instead, I found questions that I want students to be able to answer, questions that required some knowledge about current events and culture.

While they’re not incredibly difficult, they’re appropriate measures of core knowledge.

You can take a look at the sample questions here.

Does my approval of the questions mean that I think Kozol is wrong? No. Test-mania focused on exam preparation (especially the kind of objective, multiple choice measurements used for measuring Annual Yearly Progress for NCLB) absolutely drives critical thought and engagement out of classrooms, especially in low-performing schools under the threat of sanctions. They’re simply not capable of completely assessing a student’s capabilities or knowledge.

Yet good test questions that measure core knowledge do matter. We need to ensure that our students are aware of the fundamentals of Geography, English, History, Science, and even Math. Finding a way to teach and measure these skills—while preserving student critical thought—is the real challenge going forward.

I should offer the disclaimer that I am not a Social Studies teacher, although one colleague does mock me for teaching her curriculum in my Debate and AP Language classes.

Do yourself a favor: read Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate. In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


  • It seems to me that education is virtually the only activity in which standardized testing is controversial. We welcome standardized medical tests, standardized tests for construction materials, standardized tests for food and drug quality, standardized tests for water quality. 

    When I was a student — and that was quite some time ago — I welcomed standardized tests. So did my parents. The results of those tests showed us how I compared to other students, how well my teachers were doing, and how strong the curriculum was. That information was not available on a report card.I still welcome standardized tests, and for the same reasons.Does that mean I think No Child Left Behind got standardized testing right? No. But NCLB’s shortcomings do not prove that standardized testing is a bad idea. And they certainly don’t prove that testing is a bad idea.If we don’t test, we cannot objectively determine whether or how well students are learning what they are taught. We must test what we teach. “I’ve been a teacher for 30 years, and I know from experience that this student is doing well” isn’t good enough for me. Subjective evaluations are not without value, but they are no substitute for standardized tests that measure the performance of large populations of students. Without standardized testing, we have no way of objectively comparing, for example, chemistry students in South Carolina with chemistry students in Oregon. Both groups of students might be receiving identical letter grades, but score two standard deviations apart on the standardized test.I did look at the sample questions for 12th grade students. I agree: good questions. Why would a teacher or parent not want a student tested on this stuff?

  • The software for this website is not always recognizing double carriage returns. My post above was not written as a two-paragraph comment.

  • Kudos. Good thoughts. But does one size fit all? does a low test score impart unnecessary damage to a kid’s ability for further education in things he is good at and enjoys?

    That said, I’ve long thought that kids need to understand critical thinking skills, develop some resistance to advertising and propaganda, and understand compound interest. When they leave school, ads and agitprop will spin their heads and compound interest will eat their lunch.

    • Honestly, I think the tests might be more valuable for schools as a whole than for individual students. I wouldn’t deny a student an opportunity based on the results of a multiple choice test.

      • I would deny a student an opportunity to become a surgeon if he could not pass a rigorous multiple choice test on human anatomy. 

        • Our education system is tasked with responsibility to prevent thinking while at the same time letting technicians and scientists pass through and perform well. Scientists and engineers cannot fake it. They really have to be good. Most of them end up apolitical, as that part of the brain does not develop.

          • Having read far too much educational theory and criticism of traditional schools, I find that while I am sympathetic to the critics of public education, there is little evidence that anyone is “tasked” with preventing thinking. It’s just that many individuals find it easier to teach that way, I think.

            Systems are neither the problem nor the solution to our educational problems, in my mind. Individual acts are.

          • Yes, I should not have used that word, making it sound like grand conspiracy. But by design or mere consequence, schools indeed turn out kids who have no resistance to ads or war agitprop. Try to introduce so e real history and the wrath of parents and the CoC come down on you. The whole of the system was designed to turn out factory workers, what with the bells and regimentation. Add standardized testing to that and formula is complete.

            My best teachers in life sat close to us, interacted, shared knowledge with enthusiasm. All testing was written, and tests were very hard because we had to construct complete essays, beginning middle end. Of course I’m talking about college, as I left high school with an empty head.

            I’ll have to look this up sometime to see if I’m repeating urban legend, but I heard of a Michigan school, one of the big ones, that decided to track students to see how affirmative action kids did post-degree in comparison to the rest. The results – not that different than the regular students. In other words, bad performance in high school did not predict performance life outcome.

            Anyway, I annoy Budge by telling him that no matter his fancy theories, his philosophy does not produce good results. And the same with schooling. Look around us.

    • “does a low test score impart unnecessary damage to a kid’s ability for further education in things he is good at and enjoys?”

      Many standardized tests are scored and the kids never know the results – they are just for evaluating teachers.  But I agree that some key skills need to be learned.  In a smaller or less connected country, it may be acceptable to know only the skills needed for a career.  But for Americans, it is unacceptable to be ignorant enough of the rest of the world to go along with actions as disastrous as invading Iraq or stirring up trouble with Iran. 

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