The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much."... ...Yogi Berra

Commentary of the Day - March 29, 2001:   The Game Show of Standardized Testing - Guest Commentary by Beverly Carol Lucey:

Teachers are cheating.  But they are not the only ones.  Scandals are breaking out in California, Chicago, New York, Maryland, Georgia, and other places we don't know about.

The suspect activity: filling in the bubbles with number two pencils.

Newsweek reports widespread evidence of teachers "helping" students with standardized tests.

Some schools stop teaching content weeks before tests.  Instead, class time is spent taking practice tests.

Some teachers advise students that when the two-minute warning is given, they should fill in B on every question they have not yet answered.

Some teachers, while proctoring the real thing, nudge students toward right answers or offer whispered reminders.

Why?  Because the latest moves toward accountability in the classroom hang on test scores. A failing school fails because of a number that supposedly reveals what the school is or is not accomplishing.

Oh, phooey.  Schools and teaching and kids are way too complicated a dynamic to be reduced to a number.

Don't YOU hate to be referred to by number?  Unless, of course, it's your number being called in the bakery line.

After watching "So You Want to Be a Millionaire" the night the young IRS agent became the first to win the big prize, I had the odd feeling that standardized tests were made for him. Four choices, all facts. If you know the right one, you can advance to the next level.

For other worthy endeavors in life, I would maintain that standardized tests, high stakes testing, Gateway curriculum tests, ITBS, Stanford 9 or any other single measure of success is merely a con game of the worst sort.

These tests benefit the following:

1.  Those students who test well, given multiple choice options

2.  Companies who create and market the tests

3.  People who believe in the reductionist assumption that standardized test results reveal a "truth" about knowledge and skill acquisition, from which we can make other assumptions:

__ that most public schools aren't working

__ that teachers aren't teaching

__ that kids aren't learning enough

__ that vouchers and charter schools are good responses to problems in public education

__ that pay for performance (based on those test scores) will improve education and student performance after graduation.


Just as democracy is messy, so are learning styles.

To test students only one way, by bubbling in answers, shows me that many people in charge of our children's future at higher levels are not thinking outside that classic box.

If they can't, we can't help educate children for the future. We will only be perpetuating memories of an absolute content that used to be absolutely a world that no longer exists.

Georgia state colleges and universities are considering new admission policies that are based not on the SAT (a standardized test that presumably predicts success at the college level) but on curriculum-based tests throughout the state. The state government wants to ensure that the public-school curriculum will be similar or the same throughout the state.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution noted that while the SAT tests reasoning skills, state tests will measure what has been learned.  The editor implied this was a good thing.

Wait just a minute here.  At the cusp of the new century we are talking about a return to "drill and kill", "teaching to the test" and testing all students the same way, even though we know better?  Why is this, I wonder?


I think it is because people from all walks of life think that a set, fact-based curriculum is safer, clearer, and more familiar.

It de-emphasizes art, music, business skills, technology, team work, real citizenship, studying a second language, creative problem solving and more, in favor of traditional academic disciplines.

It emphasizes "right" answers in favor of exploration and possibilities.

It ignores the knowledge explosion and our need to shift over to helping students search and research; instead, it holds up memorization as a value.

We cannot afford that approach, no matter how simple it seems to say, " This school is a good one because these students are in the 90th percentile. This other school is failing because these students are testing below 50 percent."

I taught in a public high school for most of my life. I work in teacher training programs at the college level now. I have seen the ongoing tension, the drills, the testing advice, the ITBS pep rallies. What a waste of valuable learning time.


Certainly there were many students who should never have been promoted or pushed on, year after year. Give that power back to the teachers. Offer remediation based on real assessments.

Certainly there are students who shine in one area...the area that will be their route to success, if we don't close the gate on their special talents.  Often, those are not the core areas being tested.

Those students add "flesh" to the "core."


Instead of spending money forming new agencies and buying all those tests, instead of wasting learning time preparing for someone else's test, do this.

Put the money into

__ smaller schools

__ smaller classes

__ newer texts and resource material

__ more access to technology and the Internet

__  higher salaries for teachers who go above and beyond

__  tuition for teachers who want to keep learning

Think long and hard about what basic skills are needed for our children to be good parents, good neighbors, good workers, and good citizens.
©2001 Beverly Carol Lucey
Beverly Carol Lucey is a freelance writer from Georgia.  Before moving to Georgia Ms. Lucey taught high school in Massachusetts for 30 years.  She now teaches in the teacher preparation program at Agnes Scott College.

Some comments from The Irascible Professor:  The IP agrees that the present standardized testing mania is overdone.  However, it would be nice to know that in a pinch the average high school graduate could write a complete sentence in the English language, or at least in some language, and that she could count to 20 without taking off her shoes.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.