Saturday, November 26, 2005

The many debates over standardized testing in public schools

(Hi folks. Here's a holiday blog post as I take a breather from the last read-through of my new book manuscript, due at the publisher this week. Information labor indeed.)

Standardized testing in the public schools connects with the idea of "information labor" on multiple levels. It is a practice intended to accurately measure the level of knowledge acquisition and information-manipulation training of children who, presumably, will soon be active producers, citizens, and individuals in an increasinly information-intensive economy, polity, and society. In addition, it is a practice often used to measure the effectiveness of teachers, administrators, and school boards in producing such knowledge and skills in students -- with the threat of failure in these endeavors ranging from firing at the individual level to privatization at the institutional level. And, of course, standardized testing is "information labor" in and of itself for those students who must study, practice, and take the exams themselves.

So I read with great interest an article in the New York Times today ( on the contradictory results coming out of the Bush Administration's public school testing practices at both the national and state levels, as mandated by the "No Child Left Behind" regulations:

A comparison of state test results against the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test mandated by the No Child Left Behind law, shows that wide discrepancies between the state and federal findings were commonplace.

In Mississippi, 89 percent of fourth graders performed at or above proficiency on state reading tests, while only 18 percent of fourth graders demonstrated proficiency on the federal test. Oklahoma, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, Texas and more than a dozen other states all showed students doing far better on their own reading and math tests than on the federal one.

The chasm is significant because of the compromises behind the No Child Left Behind law. The law requires states to participate in the National Assessment - known to educators as NAEP (pronounced nape) - the most important federal measure of student proficiency.

But in a bow to states' rights, states are allowed to use their own tests in meeting the law's central mandate - that schools increase the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency each year. The law requires 100 percent of the nation's students to reach proficiency - as each state defines it - by 2014.

States set the stringency of their own tests as well as the number of questions students must answer correctly to be labeled proficient. And because states that fail to raise scores over time face serious sanctions, there is little incentive to make the exams difficult, some educators say.

What was even more fascinating (and disturbing) to me than these results, however, was the way the article portrayed their reception by various interest groups:

The battle lines have long been sharp in the testing debate. Most corporate leaders favor national testing, said Susan Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, a group that represents corporate executives.

Opponents include liberal groups that dislike all standardized testing; the testing industry itself, which has found lucrative profits in writing new exams for all 50 states; and political conservatives who fiercely resist any intrusion on states' rights to control curricula and tests.

To me the vast disparity in national versus state test results is disturbing because it undermines not only the very goals of "No Child Left Behind" (that all children reach a socially-agreed-upon level of proficiency in the socially-agreed-upon "basics" of education such as reading and math) but because it undermines the _process_ through which NCLB is supposed to reach these goals -- certifying "successful" versus "failing" teachers, schools, and school districts, as a prelude to diverse and as-yet-undefined set of penalties and remedies which might range from state takeover to federal voucher programs. The various interest groups described in the article all hold different positions, not only on the value of standardized testing as a diagnostic tool itself, but on the set of options, outcomes, and opinions tied into the whole philosophy of NCLB. By simplifying the views of so-called "liberals" into "disliking all standardized testing", or by splitting off "political conservatives" without considering the complementary fractions of conservatism in the public schooling debates such as social conservatives and economic conservatives, such complexities fall out of the debate.

I suppose the NYT would classify me as a "liberal against testing" in this regard. Personally, I consider myself more of a "progressive pragmatist" who is not against testing itself. In my own personal history I benefitted greatly from my own effort, ability, and luck in successfully scoring high on college-entrance and college-credit tests during high school, and it would be a bit dishonest for me to now disavow testing -- especially since my job as a university professor puts me in the position of trusting this testing process with regard to my students.

But that doesn't mean that I think our current form of standardized testing is either fully complete or fully coherent in measuring ability, accomplishment, or future potential; or that I agree with any possible use to which the results of standardized tests might be put, often to deny further participation in the educational process either to educators or to those that they attempt to educate. Again, my personal experience reminds me that, coming from a privileged cultural position, many tests made sense to me simply because of my long exposure to them or my shared cultural background with the test-writers; that my abilities with regard to artistic expression, creative thinking, political activism, or scientific wonder were never "tested" by the Educational Testing Service; and that if more class time had been taken to teach me and my peers to a test, we would have missed out on other important educational messages and lessons which can't be reduced to a filled-in circle on a Scantron sheet.

"Liberals" and "conservatives" alike may appreciate the rational ideal of testing, but may disagree both between these groups and within these groups, on the proper uses to which testing must be put. The current evidence that the philosophy and implementation, rewards and penalties, rhetoric and reality of NCLB are not matching up on the most basic level of standardized test scores should reopen debate on the rest of the regulations -- have the current administration and congress crafted a plan which serves the interests of social justice, or one which serves the interests of the status quo? Have they listened to the lobbying pressure of a profit-driven information industry, or of progress-minded information professionals?

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