Here is a guest post written by Lindsey Wright.
by Lindsey Wright
In a scorching op-ed written to the Wall Street Journal, Chinese educator Jiang Xueqin excoriated his country's obsession with standardized testing. "Both multinationals and Chinese companies have the same complaints about China’s university graduates: they cannot work independently, lack the social skills to work in a team and are too arrogant to learn new skills. In 2005, the consulting firm McKinsey released a report saying that China’s current education system will hinder its economic development." Yet here's the most interesting part: According to standardized test scores, China's students are number one in the world in math, language and science.
Despite the warnings from China, the U.S seems to be going down the same path. The public school and library system of the United States were once models for the rest of the world. Due to the fact that education was available to nearly everyone, a larger portion of the population had an opportunity to achieve success instead of an elite few. As such, public education and America's economic power rose together, and they remain inseparable from one another. However, an increased focus on standardized testing is threatening both.
According to the College of Saint Benedict, testing in the U.S. public education system has been around since the first colonial one-room schoolhouse opened its doors in the early 1600s. As a way of measuring a student's progress in reading, writing and arithmetic, it was unbeatable. Two centuries later, standardized testing was instituted with the Iowa Basic Skills Test (IBST). Every kid old enough to chew an eraser was given the test, the results of which were still mostly used only by teachers to measure student performance.
By 1965, standardized testing was growing at a rate of 20 percent per year, and began to be used as a metric for allocation of funding from state and national budgets. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) began to hold enormous influence over college entry and even future employment of graduating high school students.
In 2002, George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, and standardized testing became a major criteria for funding, even to the point of measuring a teacher's performance and determining their salaries. Yet, it seemed that the more emphasis was placed on passing standardized tests, the less children were actually learning, no matter if they attended a traditional brick-and-mortar school or an online school. How could that be?
For one thing, the amount of time teachers spent preparing students to take standardized tests dramatically increased, with many teachers reporting that prep began on day one of the school year. Valuable time, once spent in interaction, mentoring, participating in the arts, developing social skills and even play were now spent learning how to take tests and get higher scores.
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars poured by each state into standardized testing and analyzing the results, the U.S. continued to slip in the global rankings of education quality. As of 2009 out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.
Part of the problem lies not just in our obsession with standardized tests, but also in the tests themselves. A standardized test is a series of multiple choice questions, each one of which has only one correct answer. They are scored by machines, which is the only objective part of the process. Likewise the test measures only superficial knowledge, the ability to pick the right answer from a group. It does not measure critical thinking ability, how students learn or their ability to create. Therefore, America's massive testing infrastructure is not set up to measure the only thing that matters in education: a student's ability to think. In fact, all it can do is measure a student's ability to remember isolated answers.
Similarly the laserlike focus on test scores, upon which school funding is based, has caused terrible but logical results. Schools are cutting back on subjects like music, art, social studies and sciences that are not included on the tests. Even the length of recess has been shortened in the name of test preparation. Teachers who work with difficult students but are held accountable for low test scores are being forced out of positions where they are most needed.
Turning out graduates that can take a test but can't think, create or innovate is not just America's problem, but also the world's. With the global economy shifting away from manufacturing toward knowledge-based industries, it is becoming more and more important that students develop conceptual and creative skills. As Jiang Xueqin concluded, "According to research on education, using tests to structure schooling is a mistake. Students lose their innate inquisitiveness and imagination, and become insecure and amoral in the pursuit of high scores."
China is now rolling out a new 10-year plan for its education goals that reduces emphasis on standardized test scores. In America, the Obama Administration has announced key changes to the No Child Left Behind that will reduce punishment for struggling schools and include evaluation of more subjects than the core of math and reading. At least it's a start.