By Samantha Plotner
Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of Washington DC public schools, has been caught up in a scandal. A school whose strong turnaround in test scores she championed as a model for the rest of the troubled school system, cheated. Those great scores came about because adults were changing the markings of their pupils. Rhee’s methods, that were not terribly popular in DC, are now coming under fire. But when I look at this situation I see something that has bothered me for years, how important state standardized exams are in public education.
Before I went off to college I went to public schools. So every May brought the Commonwealth of Virginia ‘s standardized exams, the Standards of Learning (SOLs for short). Late April would bring review sessions and practice tests. Mid-May brought the exams themselves, which would destroy any semblance of our schedule in place of hours spent bubbling-in scantron sheets with number two pencils. By the time I reached high school Virginia administered the exams electronically, so instead we’d sit in rows in the gym at laptops. The only reason I liked SOL time was that since you couldn’t leave after you completed your exam I always got to read. But in high school I also started to realize how ridiculous these exams could be. I must admit that I went to a very good public high school and I mostly had great teachers, so SOLs were an annoyance more than something I worried about. The only SOL I was ever fearful of not doing well on was sophomore year chemistry. But here was the thing, failing an SOL actually had few consequences once you reached high school. You wouldn’t get what’s called a “verified credit” towards graduation, but you could fail an SOL or two without your graduation being in jeopardy. If you did well in the course (or didn’t fail anyway) you’d be okay. You’d have to retake the exam later in the test window in May (since electronic administration allowed the exams to be scored within 24 hours rather than a month or more) or during SOL makeups the following fall. You’d keep retaking the exam pretty much until you passed. But failing wouldn’t hold you back a grade and it wouldn’t keep you from getting credit for the class. You just had to pass the test for the sake of passing the test. What is the point? How much does the state devote to creating, administering, and grading these exams? Not to mention the resources the school has to devote to administering them.
I am telling you all of this to make a point. Policymakers trumpet the importance of test scores, tying everything from teacher salaries to school funding to them but my personal experience has led me to believe that these tests are overemphasized in public education. I understand why these exams were initially created. There has to be some level of accountability, some way to ensure students are meeting certain standards. Yet I don’t think standardized state exams, as they currently exist anyway, are the way to do that. A standardized, multiple-choice exam cannot reflect what makes a strong education, especially at the secondary level. It can’t show if you had a teacher who inspired you, motivated you to try your hardest, or taught you lessons you’ll keep with you forever. It doesn’t reflect skills you learned like complex written and oral communication. What does it measure? How well you can take a test. It is the same phenomenon that shows students who receive tutoring for the SAT or ACT do better. Think back to when you were prepping for one (or both) of those. What did you do to prepare? Take multiple practice tests and learn “test taking strategies.” How well do you think your SAT or ACT score reflects you as a student? I see state standardized exams the same way.
This dependence on standardized tests can lead down a dangerous path. Reformers, who have the best of intentions, try to tie high scores to federal and state funding, teacher salaries, and staff decisions. Yet what happened in DC shows that there are people who will try to take the easy way out by altering test scores. It can also cause schools to “narrow the curriculum” and focus solely on those subjects (math and English in particular) that are emphasized by federal programs. With either scenario the students suffer, which is exactly the opposite of what education reform is trying to achieve.
My opposition to state standardized exams is two-fold. One, I don’t think they accurately represent the quality of a child’s education and two, I think what our heavy dependence on these tests leads some schools to do is dangerous for the overall quality of public education. Not to mention private schools in most (if not all) states are exempted from these exams. There are better ways to examine education. For example looking at course grades, reading student and parent reviews of teachers, or taking random samples of student work. Yes, those would take much more time to look at and part of the appeal of standardized exams is their ability to quickly quantify something that is in reality next to impossible to quantify. But making the focus of our public education system standardized exams isn’t doing anybody any favors. Imagine what we could do if all the money that is wasted on these tests was instead devoted to teacher training, improving school facilities and developing new curriculums. That would do much more to create the well-rounded, creative, and enthusiastic students that we want and need.
Samantha is a sophomore at Barnard and Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing.
Photo courtesy of Discovery.