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It's time to rethink the purpose of standardized tests

Maryland education officials are dropping the time-consuming, disruptive and unpopular PARCC tests, and soliciting bids from contractors to design a new school testing regimen. This is not surprising given that the introduction of new school assessments that immediately wane in popularity is a recurring event in Maryland.

The PARCC tests replaced the MSA (Maryland School Assessment) and HSA (High School Assessment) tests, which were replacements for the MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program).

While the test acronyms keep changing, three things stay the same: Everyone agrees that 1.) tests should be administered, 2.) standards should be kept high, and 3.) students, teachers and parents detest standardized tests.

To break from this expensive and frustrating cycle, we should rethink the purpose of tests. Standardized tests, as currently designed, tell us what students do not know, and we assume that not knowing is indicative of failure to learn. But this assumption is false.

For example, a student could have arrived at school already meeting the standards being tested, gone through the motions of attending class every day and learned nothing. A standardized test would not flag this student’s failure to learn.

Conversely, a student could have arrived at school not even knowing the English language, attended class every day and, while not yet completely fluent, made substantial progress in English language acquisition. A standardized test would flag this student as deficient despite the enormous amount learned.

This “deficiency” would also be misleading because not only would the developing bilingual student have learned much more, but bilingualism will be a major asset as an adult — not a deficit. Furthermore, bilingualism is just one example of an asset that would be overlooked by a standardized test. Knowledge and skills in sports, art, music, design and leadership, to name a few, don’t necessarily enhance test scores but will be important assets in students’ futures.

These examples raise a more fundamental question beyond the purpose of tests. Should schools be institutions of learning or training centers that issue certifications of competency for a narrow range of skills? The commitment to upholding “standards,” however high, and testing for them, purposes schools as boards of certification. The intention is well meaning — seeing to it that every child has an equal chance in life — but it is also misguided.

The vast social and economic inequalities that plague our society do not arise from normal differences in talents, interests and abilities among children. These inequalities arise from corrupt and dysfunctional political and economic structures. Standardized tests are a counterproductive response because they do nothing to eliminate these structural inequalities, while seeking to erase the human diversity that is essential for a vibrant and thriving society. The social and economic inequities that corrode our democracy need to be remedied through the political process. Standardized tests cannot fix them.

An approach to education based on standards invariably results in checklists being brought out and omissions noted, rather than accomplishments cited. It is a general truth of the human condition that the list of knowledge and skills a person possesses will always be short compared to the list that person lacks. Education, when viewed through this lens, becomes an exercise in futility.

Articulating and assessing “standards” is also a futile exercise. A list of skills for “college and career readiness” — to borrow a recent phase — is guaranteed to be obsolete before anyone has a chance to graduate, because the world is changing too fast. The history of Maryland testing shows this to be the case. However, there are two constants in all the change: the need for life-long learning and the fact that the economy is demanding a greater diversity of talents, skills and dispositions; not less.

Our children are not robots manufactured to comply with identical product specifications. They are human beings and should be treated as such. Their diversity should be celebrated, not erased. Schools should be places of learning. Tests are an essential part of the education process, but they should be individualized to assess what a child has learned, not what he or she doesn’t know. And all students should be challenged to learn, regardless of whether or not they meet the “standards.” In our schools, learning should be the standard.

Joseph Ganem (ganem@loyola.edu) is a professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland and author of “The Robot Factory: Pseudoscience in Education and Its Threat to American Democracy.”

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