High Stakes Testing

The SAT cheating scandal illustrates what’s wrong with the American educational system.   For so many students and educational institutions, it all comes down to a high stakes test.  We are a nation obsessed with testing – PSAT, ACT, SAT, GRE, MCAS, MCAT to name but a few.  Test scores determine rankings and ratings at schools, colleges and universities, which in turn impact fund raising, and the admissions process.  The multibillion dollar testing industry produces a dizzying array of test preparation and reference books, and promotes expensive preparation courses.

High stakes testing leads to enormous pressures on kids, families and educational institutions.   Such pressures inevitably lead to the type of cheating scandals that make headlines every year.  There is increasing evidence that standardized testing does little to promote learning in the classroom.  In fact, it often gets in the way of learning as teachers feel the need to teach to the test because tests scores have become a way to measure the effectiveness of their teaching.  And as some forward thinking colleges know, test scores are not the most reliable measure of aptitude or predictor of college success.  For a complete list of hundreds of U.S. schools that either do not require the SAT or ACT or do not place great weight on test scores in the admissions process, see Fair Test.org.

And fair is key here.  The SAT and ACT test cultural knowledge and values more than anything.  There was a study done where privileged suburban kids were given an SAT prep test without the questions.  A good number were able to identify correct answers even without the questions because they understand the cultural values system inherent in the test.   They chose answers that resonated with the values of their upper middle class upbringing.

If theses tests were to go away, more kids would have a fair shot at admissions to more colleges and universities which would bring more diversity of experience, thought and background to higher education in the U.S.   But these won’t go away, because higher education has been so thoroughly corporatized.   I wonder how many college professors and administrators are consultants to the test book and test preparation industry?  And to compete, and stay afloat, colleges and universities feel the need to play the game which reduces prospective students to a number.

The good news is that there are a growing number of institutions who have decided to change the rules of the game to attract students and families who are fed up with high stakes testing.   Now whether a school’s stance is one based on the principle of fairness is a fair question.  With tuition rates from 25-60 thousand a year, colleges are doing everything they can to attract “customers”.  In the end, higher education is big business.

The Candidates on Education

Education has not been a major issue on the campaign trail, but the candidates’ positions should be scrutinized. I’m going to highlight the major differences between McCain and Obama on Education policy and provide links to information on all the presidential candidates’ views on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)- and yes there are more than 2 parties in this country and more than 2 presidential candidates, but unfortunately, the mainstream media largely ignores third parties like the Libertarians, the Green Party, the Independent Ralph Nader, and smaller parties that participate in the Democratic process here in the US of A.

McCain wants to significantly expand school choice, giving parents more opportunities to enroll their kids in Charter schools. He puts the blame for failing schools largely on teachers and administrators and talks about replacing them. Charter schools are not subject to the same governance rules as traditional schools but are funded publicly. At Charters, more decisions are made at the school level or locally; administrators have more authority in hiring decisions and more flexibility with regard to teacher salaries – they can pay a teacher less than the prevailing Union wage. Charters vary enormously in quality, one from another and from state to state. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of Charter schools, the fact is they do drain resources from struggling schools that need more not less support. Charters are subject to business like accountability, like other public schools under NCLB, which puts emphasis on high stakes testing, creating the conditions to require teaching to the test. For schools to succeed in a high stakes testing environment, teachers must focus on information processing, rather than critical thinking. McCain’s chief education adviser is Lisa Graham Keegan, herself a proponent of high stakes testing. In a Charter school, extracurricular activities like art, debate and theater may give way to after school test preparation sessions. Regular schools drained of resources, quickly drop music and art programs. Uniforms are standard issue, partly to promote conformity and obedience – I guess this is what’s meant by skilled workers – workers who are skilled at taking orders from those who do the thinking.

McCain’s plan would move funds out of failing schools and into Charters and I presume also into Pilot schools, fulfilling the choice part of the Excellence, Choice and Competition slogan that can be found on the McCain-Palin website. If you are comfortable with this market model of education – pitting one school against another for resources; and like the idea of schools competing for students; and if you think privatization efforts where schools receive support from businesses in exchange for input on the school curricula and access to captive student consumers, already happening throughout the country, you might like the McCain plan. McCain’s plan offers little more than 4 more years of the last 8 under Bush’s failed No Child Left Behind law- flawed and never adequately funded.

Obama also supports Charter schools and favors experimentation with whatever works. Unlike McCain, he emphasizes more support for failing schools, not punishment. He favors higher pay for teachers (and they deserve it) and tax credits to attract new teachers to teach in needy school districts. Obama proposes alternative forms of testing and assessment to counteract the negative consequences of high stakes testing. In my opinion, these standardized tests are biased and do not measure student capabilities. An increasing number of colleges have reached this same conclusion and no longer require prospective students to submit SAT or ACT scores. Obama’s education adviser is Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond whose views are far more progressive than Keegan’s.

The idea of promoting alternative schools has some appeal but not at the expense of struggling schools, schools that badly need increased resources, not severe penalties. In fact, public education needs increased funding at all levels – from Pre-K to Adult Basic Education (ABE).

Candidates Views on No Child Left Behind

And speaking of adults, none of the candidates have said much about the importance or even the existence of Adult Basic Education (ABE). These are publicly funded programs that provide Literacy, GED, English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and transitions to college education for millions of adults. While the candidates talk about the importance of parental involvement in the education of a child, they fail to understand that an adult left behind cannot provide the kind of academic support the child needs to have the best chance of success in school.

Let’s put people first and leave no child and no adult behind!