If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn't be here. I guarantee you that. -Michelle Obama
When President George W. Bush rolled out his “No Child Left Behind” program in 2001, it sounded hopeful—a new way to improve our education system. The mission made sense: make sure that no child falls through the cracks and that every youth in our nation gets a superb education.
The idea was simple: use standardized tests to locate failing schools, and then fix them. Hold schools to a higher standard of accountability and thereby improve quality of education nationwide.
How did this all begin? The genesis was a study done on global education systems. This study revealed that the United States’ educational system (K-12) was mediocre when compared with other systems around the world. It was abundantly clear to the experts—we were failing our youth, and we needed to fix the system, stat, if we wanted to stay competitive globally.
“An accountability system must have a consequence,” the President famously said. “Otherwise, it’s not much of an accountability system.”
Hindsight is 20/20, but the solution seemed like a good idea to many at the time. Unfortunately, the victims of all this “accountability” ended up being children, who faced enormous pressure from all the standardized tests.
The Washington Post explained that the average American student will take approximately 112 standardized tests between pre-K and the twelfth grade—an average of 8.6 tests per year. By contrast, most countries that outperform us, education-wise, only test students an average of 3 times.
Why So Much Testing?
The underlying idea behind the testing increase was to produce a data stream to identify problem areas, which we could then correct. However, the pressure to perform has fallen largely to the students, rather than schools, and the emotional toll of that pressure is more difficult to measure—unless you consider the “special instructions” that sometimes accompany these tests.
As HBO’s satirist John Oliver revealed in his exposé on this subject, the testing gets so stressful that administrators sometimes offer instructions for test proctors on what to do if a child vomits on a test booklet. Test creators know the pressure being put on the children but do nothing to curb it.
What About the Results?
After more than 15 years of No Child Left Behind policies, the big question is whether we’ve improved children’s educations. But data suggests that we haven’t—in fact, we’ve gotten worse.
In the year 2000, among the 35 industrialized nations participating in the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) test, the U.S. ranked 14th in science and 18th in math.
However, according to the Hechinger Report, the 2016 PISA results dropped U.S. down to 18th in science (down 4 places from 2000) and a dismal 31st in math! At what point are we actually going to use this data to fix education?
Where is the accountability that was so touted when this bill was introduced and got so much bipartisan support? Who among our policymakers will make sure that we help our failing kids? Who is supposed to take a look at the schools that are under performing? If you say it’s the Department of Education, then we’re in serious trouble!
Also, with standardized testing, we have made it so that tests are all-important. We teach kids to obsess over test scores and memorize information instead of instilling life skills more appropriate to the challenges of the 21st century.
Following the Money
Given these downward trends, why aren’t we doing more to reform school testing? As with so many issues, it may boil down to corporate greed and profits used to pay politicians. It turns out that standardized testing is big business, valued between $400 million and $700 million, according to the Huffington Post. Testing is dominated by companies like Pearson, Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin and McGraw-Hill. Many higher-ups personally profit from over-testing: The executive heads of the companies that own SAT and ACT each make more than $1 million per year.
Given the current groundswell for change among young people of today, it’s time for a fresh call to reform testing in schools—not entirely unlike the need to reform the costs of higher education in general.
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