Race To Nowhere is an excellent description of the standardized testing movement. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, increased the role of the federal government in public education and also expanded the role of standardized testing. This morning, I had a conversation with another educator who was ending a California State Testing week. The dedication of this teacher is commendable; although exhausted and stressed, this educator was hopeful that her students did well. She wanted them to have a chance at the best education possible. When I mentioned to her the best education possible is not based on state testing, she went through the myriad of reasons why testing is a benefit. These alleged benefits of standardized testing permeate the public educational system causing harm to students, teachers and the future of public education as a whole.
According to the California Department of Education, the purpose of standardized testing is “to measure how well students are learning the knowledge and skills identified in California’s content standards.” In addition, standardized testing results will assist with focusing curricular instruction and organizing teaching methods. The goals of standardized testing seem to be falling short; instead of measuring student knowledge and focusing instruction and methods, the rigor of testing seems to be a silent erosion of our school system. A recent documentary, Race To Nowhere, chronicles the culture of today’s youth in public school. According to the documentary, the epidemic of standardized testing has produced a culture for cheating, disengaging students, stress-related illness, depression, burnout, and of compromised young adults seemingly unprepared and uninspired for the future.
“Only a handful of scholars and practitioners have argued in defense of standardized tests,” wrote Lishing Wang and fellow researchers Gulbahar H. Beckette and Lionel Brown. The Educational Research Newsletter analyzed the pros and cons of standard-based assessments. According to the website one of the pros of these assessments are a common core of knowledge. These common standards assist in comparing grades across teachers and schools. Students should be expected to meet common standards that are challenging and are more than just minimum requirements regardless of socioeconomic status, race or disability. The other side argues that by imposing standards on students’ minds they are constricting intellectual freedom. These standardized tests oversimplify the core knowledge and do not test higher-order thinking. Cookie cutter standards either dumb down instruction or condemn low-ability students to frequent failure. Students can become disengaged and burned out.
Regardless of the side of the argument, all students, teachers and schools are not created equal and this fact is not taken into account when examining the practice of standardization. The practice of standardized test are to meant to level the playing field when in fact the playing field with struggling learners in school is never level. In other words the interventions that are being utilized to assist struggling students are not individualized or unsuccessful. According to the California Department of Education website’s data for July of 2008, 13, 237 students took the Math portion of the California Exit Exam and 13, 373 students took the English portion of the exam. 29% of the students passed the Math and 30% passed the English portions of the test for the state. When we superimpose the same standards on every student, teacher and school, we receive results that are disappointing—a race to nowhere.
These disappointing results are rooted in non-profit school communities maintaining for-profit activities, i.e., test scores. Data has become the catch phrase and teacher’s names are associated directly with their student’s scores. Improvement has been demanded on the back of a shocked system, and therefore an increase of assessments and pacing guides has followed. This increase of standardized testing is big business for the private sector. There are four companies that dominate the testing market: Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson- three test publishers and one scoring firm. Press reports value the testing market anywhere from $400 million to $700 million. There is a top-down chain between policy, content, materials, and instruction. Policymakers dictate the content, textbook companies convert the content into materials and schools purchase these materials for consumption by teachers and students. According to a blog entitled, When Pedagogy and Policy Collide written by Brigitte Knudson, what America is experiencing is called “commodification” of education. In others words, education has became a commodity or moneymaker. Knudson goes on to state, “Education – the process of learning – has been co-opted by an alliance of business and government interests, for the dual purposes of maintaining the government’s economic interests and propelling the private sector, all while fostering a climate of continual educational crisis in the country that places blame on a system of its own creation that is intentionally underfunded to perpetuate the cycle.” This marriage of big business, government and non-profit school communities continues to lead to disappointment and a move toward privatization of public education. It’s a lose-lose situation as reformers concentrate on splintered areas of need while big business and government erode the core, destroying the public education system right under our noses.
“Race to Nowhere is a call to challenge these current assumptions and mobilize families, educators, and policy makers for how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens,” Race to Nowhere website. This documentary is showing this month in Pasadena, California, go to see it. Spread the news to educators, parents, students and your community. Join the Race to Nowhere Facebook Page in your area. This link is the Los Angeles page. If a page or community group is not available for your area, start one. Let’s continue to examine the facts regarding our educational system and make it our own again.