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Tests Don't Always Count What Should Be Counted

  • Jim Daly Jim Daly is president and chief executive officer of Focus on the Family, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families thrive.
  • 2011 Dec 07





What do you think about standardized tests?

Writing in this past Monday’s Washington Post, Marion Brady, a veteran teacher and curriculum designer, shared a fascinating story that confirms what many people, including the late Albert Einstein, have long suspected:

“Not everything that can be counted counts,” observed the German physicist, “and not everything that counts can be counted.”

He was right.

In the essay, Ms. Brady relays the story of a longtime friend who agreed to take a state-sponsored 10th grade reading and math exam. The gentleman is highly educated and professionally successful within the world of academia. In his full-time role he manages an organization of 22,000 employees with an annual budget of $3 billion.

How did he fare?

In a word: Miserably.

For the math exam he successfully answered 10 out of 60 questions. For the reading portion of the test he scored 62%.

A cynic might suggest that the exam exposed just how unqualified the individual was for his position, that he’s been “hiding out,” but the proof of his competency is in his current job performance, which is excellent.

So what gives?

One of the typical knocks against standardized testing has been the fact that teachers merely teach to the test. If they want to keep their jobs and earn their tenure, their classes better perform, at least according to state standards. They don’t have time to deviate from the curriculum. Most of us have had teachers who taught this way. (In fact, in extreme cases, the pressure to deliver has even caused some unethical teachers to slip tests to students in advance.)

It’s important to measure milestones and advancement, but since every child learns differently, it’s easy for a state-sponsored test to be at best inefficient and at worst ineffective. But the concern some have over standardized testing goes well beyond lowering a teacher’s or school’s reputation. That’s because it’s the student who potentially suffers the greatest harm. Reflecting on his dreadful performance, Ms. Brady’s academic friend offered the following insight:

If I’d been required to take those two testswhen I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail “cut score”? How?

Here is the bottom line: All too often the system is inevitably testing the wrong things and keeping teachers from teaching children the right thing – the education and skills necessary to succeed in the real world.

From my perspective, I believe that parents and their local communities should have the most say in what’s happening in their neighborhood schools. Government fixes from on high rarely work.It’s this current challenge that leads us to strongly support school choice. Parents know best.

I’m curious to know what you think. Are you a teacher? Have you experienced frustration with the system? Are you and your children navigating this right now? And what do you think about this gentleman’s encounter with the 10th grade test?

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