Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Op-Ed By Stephanie Jones in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010  -- Tears welled up in my friend’s eyes, and I knew her daughter hadn’t passed her grade-level state “standardized” test that determined whether or not she would be promoted to middle school. My stomach sank, and tears rose in my eyes, too.

My friend was already struggling with motivating her child to read at home and with her lack of enthusiasm about school and learning in general. Anything that resembled “school” had become the enemy, even when it included things that people “just do” in life — like read.

The standardization of schooling and the faulty instruments used to measure schooling have crossed the line of insanity and left everyone suffering except the billion-dollar publishing industry providing tests and preparation materials to every school in the nation.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan might be partially right that the complex teaching/learning enterprise is about the “talent” of a teacher. However, a standardized curriculum and standardized instrument for measuring learning efficiently strips teachers of engaging their “talents” to integrate curricula and students’ interests, local issues that could provide innovative sites of learning for students and their option of extending learning to rich out-of-school experiences that may actually positively impact a child’s life.

When a teacher’s talent is measured by her or his students’ scores on a standardized test, we have truly entered a bizarre world where words have completely different meanings than in folks’ everyday lives. “Reformers” who claim standardized testing is the cornerstone for educational reform but reluctantly admit that the arts don’t lend themselves to standardized testing miss the point that all disciplines — life sciences, mathematics, writing, reading, social studies, history, geography and so on — incorporate the creative and innovative typically assigned to the arts.

Education does not lend itself to standardization or standardized testing.

When a society tries to harness the dynamic processes of teaching and learning by attempting to measure the lowest common denominator of the process that is thought to be measurable, we find ourselves stuck with a generation of students who have been constrained and restricted to that lowest common denominator.

Might they earn “better” scores on the rigid multiple-choice and closed-ended short response prompt tests that don’t require higher order thinking, innovative problem solving, or making connections across disciplines to better understand and act on the world? Sure — but who cares?

Our society is plagued with problems that require the most innovative, creative thinkers who have deep and broad knowledge and experiences, and we are counting on our youth to have the tools to solve those problems very soon. Who cares what their elementary and high school test scores were or even their GPAs? Can they stop the oil gushing in the Gulf? Better yet, who will help us end our dependence on oil?

These are the questions that matter today and in the future. But my friend’s child, who is already disenchanted with standardized schooling and will be “retained” because of her performance on the state standardized test if her private tutoring and public summer school (paid for by parents) doesn’t help her pass the test the next time, won’t likely get a chance to be involved in such important questions. Why?

Because she will join the ranks of millions now at risk for dropping out of high school because of her one-year retention, and if she drops out of high school she will not likely attend college during her life and will not likely earn the credentials necessary to even allow her the opportunity to have a job where such important problems will be solved.

High school graduation rates have decreased since the federal mandate of state standardized testing. This is not because learning has decreased; it’s because the instruments are faulty and even if they were good instruments, they would be attempting to measure the immeasurable: Learning, and the teaching that promotes powerful learning, cannot be measured by numbers nor only by words or checklists or surveys or multiple choice tests or short responses.

Learning can be demonstrated in powerful ways through community engagement, project creation, inventions, reports, and an infinite number of other possibilities. The “reformers” of the ’80s and ’90s — including Theodore Sizer and Deborah Meier among many others who carried much less clout than the politically minded number-crunching “reformers” of today — were more concerned with children’s learning and the diverse ways children could demonstrate their learning through creative weaving of their schooling experiences to the real world.

It’s not too late to change the Race to the Top world view, and the ill-informed educational future of millions of children including my friend’s child.

States seem eager to ask “how high” when federal officials tell them to jump for educational dollars regardless of the negative consequences.

Perhaps federal officials — Duncan at the lead — can ask states to jump into showcasing real learning of children and real talents of teachers by requiring creative and innovative exhibitions of growth.

  • Stephanie Jones is an associate professor in the Department of Elementary and Social Studies Education at the University of Georgia.


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