Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In Which I Prove that the Current Focus on Testing Is INSANE

People in my educational circles generally know that I have a Masters in Education, but most of them don’t know that as an undergraduate, I was a Philosophy major--a Phi Beta Kappa Philosophy major, actually, from the Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, since Thomas Jefferson and some other 18th Century alumni founded PBK at my alma mater, the College of William and Mary. (I don’t mean to brag here; I’m just trying to establish a modicum of evidence that I might know what I’m talking about.)

Anyway, with all the discussion back and forth about standardized testing and data-driven schools and performance-based teacher evaluation and salary systems, etc., I thought perhaps I should go back to my philosophical roots and use some old-fashioned philosophical proofs to bring clarity to the debate.

I’m a little rusty, but I could probably write this all up in formal philosophical logic symbols, but to make it more reader-friendly, I’m just going to use the English language.

Argument #1
High standardized test scores are necessary because they prove the effectiveness of school education.
High standardized testing scores require all students to give the same correct answers to the questions.
For all students to give the same correct answers to the questions, all students must learn the same things in their educational classes.
All students learning the same thing in their education means that school education is standardized.
Therefore, to have high standardized testing score, education must be standardized.

Argument #2
Human brains do not operate the same way; indeed, science is proving all the ways that individual human brains, or at least groups of them, think differently from other groups and/or individuals.
Humans do not have the same personalities, body types, learning styles, or energy levels.
Humans do not have the same body of experiences, histories, or family situations.
Therefore, humans are highly differentiated.

Argument #3
School education is the education of humans.
Humans are highly differentiated.
Therefore, to serve humans, education must be highly differentiated.

But wait! We’ve now proved that education must be standardized AND education must be highly differentiated! Obviously, both can not be true. So which argument is wrong? The one that is based on what science and our own common experience both tell us--that humans are a set of very different creatures? Or the one that is based on a premise that was invented by a subset of humans who decided that high standardized test scores are the best way to evaluate education?

If you are having trouble, let me give you a hint. Arguments 2 and 3 are based on what we philosophers like to call “Facts.” Argument 1 is based on what we call a “Supposition.” Which one do you think triumphs in a logical argument?

Or if philosophy isn’t your thing, try approaching this from a scientific perspective. As I wrote in Monday’s blog post, we just had a class on biodiversity. Nature supports differentiation, not a reduction in complexity or variety. When humans have interferred with biodiversity by reducing the number of animal or plant or sometimes insect species living in an area, it has generally led to ecological, environmental, or health problems, and often even disasters. Life itself is supported by diversity, not standardization. So why would we be developing an educational system that runs counter to this basic precept of living?

Thus, the problem with all this focus on testing is not just that it doesn’t work, or wastes resources that would be better spent on other things, or that it is unproven. The problem with such an insistence on standardized testing, and therefore standardized education, is that it runs counter to the fundamental reality of life, which is diversity. And what do we call people who insist on things that are counter to reality? (Let’s skip the obvious topical joke here, folks--this is serious business.) We call them INSANE.

So there you have it. A singular focus on standardized test scores is insanity. I only wish that more educational policy makers would get their heads out of their data and wake up and smell the coffee---coffee that originated, of course, in the rainforest...the most biodiverse ecosystem on this planet.


  1. The problem with such an insistence on standardized testing, and therefore standardized education, is that it runs counter to the fundamental reality of life, which is diversity.

    I think that you're missing the point. Public education is meant to take illiterate children and turn them into people who are able to function in society. Those things that allow children to function in society are reading, writing and arithmetic.

    In short, THAT is what we should be measuring.

    If I sent my kid to the mostest fantastic art school in the state and she couldn't read or count, I'd say that school failed. We have no need for diversity or differentiality of that type in public schools. If it's there, cool...

  2. Thanks for your comment. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that diversifying education would mean that we would abandon our expectation for students to develop core competencies, including reading, writing, and arithmetic. What I am saying, though, is that the standardized testing requirements, and the increasingly standardized curriculum that comes from that requirement, is interfering with some students developing those competencies.

    So, for example, some students are developmentally ready to start learning to read at age 5--my son certainly was. But research has shown that for non-early readers, the strongest lifelong learning skills develop if reading instruction isn't begun until they are 7, or even older. Likewise, there is growing anecdotal evidence, at least, that many right brain learners aren't cognitively ready to memorize math facts, like the times tables, until they are 10 or even later. These learners can struggle with trying to memorize these facts for years, and then suddenly, when they are developmentally ready, learn these facts seemingly overnight.

    However, this option of having a few years of flux for students to delay instruction in areas for which they are not developmentally ready is eliminated by these standardized testing rules. But when students are forced to learn such skills too early, they either (1) develop inefficient coping mechanisms that tend to stunt their lifelong abilities in that area or (2) fail, develop negative feelings about that area (which makes future learning in that topic even harder), and/or are held back in school, which research shows impairs their self esteem, self confidence, and academic performance for the rest of their K-12 studies.

    To go back to our biological diversity scenario, I would compare these core competencies to the fruit on trees. Fruit trees that don't bear fruit won't survive, because the fruit contains the seeds for the future. So of course we need to do everything we can to make sure our trees develop fruit--water them, give them nutrients and sunlight, etc. But this standardized testing focus is like expecting all our trees--our apple trees, our cherry trees, even our persimmon trees--to bloom ON THE SAME DAY. Maybe, if we manipulated the environment enough, and kept some from blossoming as early as they would naturally and rushed some into blooming prematurely, we could do that. But I bet you anything that the fruit wouldn't be the sweet, luscious fruit that develops when you let a tree bloom at its own natural pace.

    But that's exactly what this high-stakes testing requirements are doing to our children.

  3. Homeschooling Mom in NCMarch 11, 2011 at 12:14 AM

    Thank you Carol!! I just found your blog via the Washington Post.

    Also posted at

    You are so right!!!

  4. Thanks for your support! And also thanks for letting me know about the Facebook posting--that's great.

    If you read Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet column in the Washington Post, then you know that the Bill Gates Foundation has committed $3.5 million to a new organization that is supposed to promote Gate's proposal to evaluate teachers and base their pay on standardized test results. So it is even more important for those of us with a different perspective to speak out.

  5. "Human brains do not operate the same way; indeed, science is proving all the ways that individual human brains, or at least groups of them, think differently from other groups and/or individuals."

    If you know logic, then you know the fallacy of equivocation. To say that human brains are different does not even remotely imply that they should all learn different things. For example, the multiplication tables, long division, algebra, and calculus all work the same for everyone, no matter how much their brains supposedly differ.

  6. Moreover, Argument 3 is a complete non sequitur:

    School education is the education of humans.
    Humans are highly differentiated.
    Therefore, to serve humans, education must be highly differentiated.

    One might as easily conclude, "Therefore, to serve humans, education must be such that all differentiation among humans is eliminated, so that humans will all enter adulthood with an equal level of knowledge and skills."

  7. As I stated in my comment above, I never meant to suggest that students don't all need some common abilities. What I am saying is that because people are so different, education needs the flexibility to provide different methodologies to those abilities, which often involves different timetables.

    So, for example, it is not true, for example, that long division "all work(s) the same for everyone, no matter how much their brains supposedly differ." Some people can do long division in their head almost intuitively, and don't need to work the problem through on paper to get the right answer. Others do the traditional long division on paper that most of us learn. But for yet others, the partial quotients method makes the most sense and can be the fastest and most accurate way to solve the problem (see if you are not familiar with this technique). Likewise, some people learn to read using visual cues (whole word literacy), some learn through auditory cues (phonics), and some use a mixed approach. However, the standardized testing and standardized curriculum that are increasingly forced upon teachers are reducing their abilities to allow students to learn using their natural abilities and inclinations, which usually make them stronger learners.

    Argument #2 already illustrated that humans are biologically differentiated, so that "all differentiation among humans is eliminated" is not an option. However, the whole logical argument thing was always meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Nonetheless, I don't believe eliminating all differentiation among humans is a possibility, and I don't believe it is a good idea. This is a continuation of the "assembly line" model of education, which I simply don't agree with. I want our schools to produce intelligent, interesting, diverse human beings, not identical widgets.

  8. Even if it's true that students all learn in different ways (it's not), that in no way implies that the end result of their education needs to be equally different.

    Put it this way: If a standardized test says that all 4th graders will be tested on 2-digit multiplication, all that means is that all 4th graders should learn that skill. It doesn't mean they all have to learn it in the same way.

    But your idea of differentiation would imply, "Let's get rid of requiring 4th graders to all show proficiency in 2-digit multiplication. Some of them are happier playing video games all day, so let's just let them show proficiency at that. Some of them learn better by moving their bodies, so let's just have those kids put on a dance show." And so forth.

    But if you do, in fact, agree that it's a good thing to check at the end of 4th grade to see whether kids have learned 2-digit multiplication or not, then a standardized test is the easy and logical way to do it. Human differentiation is in NO WAY contradictory to this.

  9. I'm not necessarily against standardized tests. I'm against using standardized tests in an inflexible way that penalizes students AND teachers.

    As I stated above, not all 4th graders are developmentally ready to master 2-digit multiplication. If we want to give them a standardized test to measure whether or not they have developed that skill, fine. But we shouldn't be using standardized tests as the only way we assess student, and consequently teacher, performance. And I believe we should have a system that keeps track of what skills have or have not been mastered, so that we make sure that 2-digit multiplication has been demonstrated at some point.

    But human differentiation means that some will be able to develop that skill in 3rd grade, most maybe in 4th grade, and some perhaps not until 6th grade. This is the kind of differentiation I support, not allowing them to do whatever makes them feel happy, whether it is academically appropriate or not. We need to give everyone the time and support they need to master the required skills, not either ignore what they haven't learned and pass them on to new stuff that will probably be even harder for them, or label them (and their teacher) a failure and have them decide that they "aren't good at math," which will hamper them for the rest of their academic career, if not their entire lives.