Teaching Is Not Testing

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait can be a very annoying person. Today, he wrote an article about the Atlanta school cheating scandal, Teachers Cheating on Tests: Not a Big Deal. His argument is that cheating is found in every area where people wish to excel, therefore we shouldn’t use this scandal as a reason to abandon our test-focused education system. Well, that’s true as far as it goes. But maybe the cheating is a sign of a more fundamental problem with our educational system.

Chait takes specific target at Eugene Robinson’s article in yesterday’s Washington Post, The Racket with Standardized Test Scores. Just in terms of a hit piece, Chait is way off base. He starts by trivializing Robinson’s article. He ends by weaseling out of the argument he made throughout his article, “But minimizing cheating is a terrible top priority. The top priority should be teaching students better.” Oh really?! So he didn’t mean all those words that he wrote about cheating being inevitable and needing to minimize that cheating rather than minimizing the use of standardized tests? He just wants students to be taught better. As opposed to Robinson who, what? Wants students taught worse? This is by far the worst article I have ever read by the generally reliable Jonathan Chait.

As Robinson points out, the problem is that those controlling our education system have become enamored with testing. He even quotes education reporter Valerie Strauss on this subject that we don’t know just how big this kind of cheating is. “What we do know is that these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform.” Listening to Chait, you would think that no such thing exists and that the fact that states can design their own standardized tests means they are somehow tailored to different communities. Think about that for a moment: are the students in East Los Angeles and Palm Springs the same? As I recall, they are not only in the same state, they are located quite near each other.

The emphasis of bureaucrats on test scores a good example of non-leadership. By quantifying something that cannot be easily quantified, using simplistic meters, people can claim to be approaching education in an objective form without doing anything at all. In this case, they create an almost random metric and then dump the task on local schools to improve student scores on the metric. It isn’t fair, but more important, it isn’t effective.

Jonathan Chait seems like someone who has eagerly drunk the education “reform” Kool-Aid. The truth is that whether test scores are going up or going down, educational attainment is not. That’s what we should be worried about. Instead, we place teachers and administrators in a ridiculous situation that does students no good at all. He’s right that these cheating scandals aren’t a reason for abandoning our test-focused educational “reform.” We have plenty of better reasons than that. But his almost hysterical attack on Robinson and lame defense of testing is a perfect example of what is stopping us to genuinely improving education.

Afterword

I recommend checking out Fair Test, a group that is fighting against our failed test-centered approach to teaching. They have an excellent FAQ, What’s Wrong With Standardized Tests? Check it out; it’s an eye-opener.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Teaching Is Not Testing

  1. I read your blog every day with interest, but have never felt the need to comment, until today. The quote below is so true, and insightful, and sad. I enjoy your writing in general, and am awed by how much time you must spend reading other blogs and news sources to stay so informed. The topic of school testing is a hidden cancer in our society, with the end in sight. Have you seen this article? read the comments, too. http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2013/04/pa-english-prof-opts-out-son-from-pssa.html

    Thanks for bringing this topic to your readers so beautifully. -Mary

    "The emphasis of bureaucrats on test scores a good example of non-leadership. By quantifying something that cannot be easily quantified, using simplistic meters, people can claim to be approaching education in an objective form without doing anything at all. In this case, they create an almost random metric and then dump the task on local schools to improve student scores on the metric. It isn’t fair, but more important, it isn’t effective."

  2. It is very true. People who are ignorant about how to teach are making decision about how kids should be taught, and it has lead to a lame educational system.

  3. @Mary and Morwalk — I don’t know if either of you have applied for jobs at big chain employers in the last few years. But about six years ago, I did, and they all required these bizarre psychological-profile tests you had to take online. (When I go to the library, these days, the computers are filled up as soon as the library opens with jobless people waiting to take these tests.)

    Those tests are damn creepy. They involve weird questions about your feelings towards your family, as well as seemingly loaded questions about how you’d respond if you knew a fellow employee was stealing.

    They’re designed by psych majors, naturally, and meant to eliminate personal judgment by managers doing interviews who can choose employees. It should all be reduced to a science; if I had issues with confronting my jerkwad abusive dad, I might not turn in a fellow worker who was stealing laundry soap, and therefore my brains/creativity/general awesomeness is not going to save Wal-Mart a few dollars compared to the sad, complacent drones they want to hire.

    I think we’ve been moving in the direction of test score obsession for the same reason — to diminish the role of gifted teachers, who can reach out to kids with all kinds of varied abilities, and replace them with sales mangers who slot children into assigned categories. Here a hedge-fund CEO, there a convenience-store worker. It’s Bush’s (and the elite’s) vision of how life should be; the "best" get everything, the "worst" nothing.

    It’s a phenomenal waste of prospective talent. I don’t quite understand why it passes for sensible policy, but that’s our time, and that’s what’s considered rational these days.

  4. @Mary – Thanks for the link. I will check it out. I do read [i]Schools Matter[/i] regularly. I would like to become more involved in education discussions. The problem is that it makes me even more angry than most other issues–and that’s saying something.

  5. @Morwalk – I think politicians just want the issue to go away. They are looking for a way to appear as though they are doing something. I don’t see how you can have true educational reform when as a society we don’t value teachers. In fact, the great American symbol of success is Steve Jobs who dropped out of college but became a billionaire. To these people schools do not matter.

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