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From the Testing Trenches

Most people who have taken their share of standardized tests know (on some level) that there is something about the tests that is, shall we say, bunk. While I was in K-12 (which was before the testing hysteria went into warp speed) I always felt that the tests were silly, and I only felt more convinced of this later when I taught students tricks for scoring higher on the SAT and ACT. I gradually realized the truth behind a frequently expressed sentiment about standardized tests: the only thing that a standardized test can measure is a person’s ability to take that standardized test.

And yet students today are taking ever more tests as the frenzy to quantify every aspect of life continues. This expansion of testing occurs against a backdrop filled with people (most of whom are not teachers) screeching about the educational deficiencies produced by the American Public School system, all of which in turn occurs against a further backdrop of professors bemoaning that the students who arrive in universities these days are frequently not prepared to handle college level material. While this furor is worked up, blame seems to consistently be directed at teachers who find themselves devoting ever more time to test preparation as their livelihoods increasingly depend on their ability to get students to fill in bubbles as opposed to think critically.

These challenges are expressed magnificently (though they be uncomfortable truths) by Kenneth Bernstein in his article “Warnings from the Trenches,” which appears in the January/February edition of Academe (a journal from the American Association of University Professors [AAUP]).  Bernstein is a retired teacher (he taught in Maryland), who has seen firsthand the way that his colleagues must mutilate their curriculum in order to produce test results instead of human results.

Bernstein’s article contains many of the criticisms of the test mad school that have been expressed elsewhere but which are still worth noting: he decries “test scores serving as the primary if not sole measure of student performance,” describes that “most of the tests…consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses,” though he goes on to add “even when a state has tests that include writing, the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated.”

Yet what made Bernstein’s  analysis particularly interesting is the courses he has the most experience teaching, as Bernstein writes: “my primary course as a teacher was government, and for the last seven years that included three or four (out of six) sections of Advanced Placement (AP) US Government and Politics.” After all, the massive tests that must be administered state wide (or are administered country wide) obviously seem like they would rely on pretty basic standards, but aren’t AP classes supposed to be rigorous courses? Shouldn’t a class where a student can earn college credit require the ability to demonstrate college level thinking?

Nope. At least not according to Bernstein. Though Bernstein expresses that he tried to keep time for “wrestling with the material at a deeper level,” he acknowledges that he must spend a great deal of time providing students with the information they will need to fill in the correct bubbles and though the AP US Government exam, apparently, includes written sections Bernstein writes that these sections “are graded by a rubric that is concerned primarily with content…if a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric,” with the sorry result being that “if, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing.”

After explaining the fix that most teachers find themselves in, Bernstein goes on to issue a plea to university professors, those who find themselves discontented by the ability of many of the college Freshman they see. Bernstein notes that teachers have had very little luck (if any luck) in challenging the culture of testing and seeks to get university professors to use their clout to speak out against testing. Bernstein warns professors that what has befallen public schools may soon hit the academy. Yet what is striking is how he concludes, with an apology, “now you [professors] are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them.” Intellectual work that students could not be prepared for precisely because attention is devoted to teaching to the test instead of teaching for the enrichment of the student.


Obviously, there is quite a bit to unpack when you speak about testing. It is a rather emotional issue for many (the children! the children!) as many parents want only what they are told is “best” even as their children are turned into test taking drones whilst teachers are occupied fighting for the very survival of their profession and tasked with more students than they can adequately serve (Bernstein notes that in his final year he had 175 students [of which 129 were in AP sections]). And, of course, you cannot really discuss matters of testing or education without talking about class, race, gender, or other issues that only further intensify what was already an emotionally charged discussion.

I thought that  Bernstein’s piece was quite interesting (which I bet you guessed), but two aspects of it particularly struck me as worthy of extra attention. Firstly, Bernstein’s note is directed at university professors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, I personally think that higher education is extremely valuable and should be available to all, but it struck me as a bit odd nevertheless. For when discussing testing and universities surely the big standardized tests to speak of are the SAT and ACT which are at the center of an extremely lucrative testing-industrial-complex and which occur somewhat outside most classrooms (though it would be wonderful to see more universities criticizing these tests). Again, I think that higher education is important, but the problem cannot simply be focused on producing high school graduates who are intellectually capable so that they can do college level work. After all, many high school graduates will never go on to sit in a college classroom. The end result of education needs to be the education itself, high schools need to be giving students the ability to think critically regardless of whether or not they choose to pursue higher education (indeed it may be even more vital for those who end their formal education with high school graduation).

Which brings me to the second aspect that I found particularly noteworthy, Bernstein taught US Government and Politics, indeed he taught Advanced Placement US Government and Politics. It may be naïve to think this (it is naïve to think this) but shouldn’t a class on US Government and Politics be focused (at least in a nominal democracy) on giving students the tools they will need to be engaged citizens able to actively participate in government? A course such as this seems the perfect area to demand and encourage critical thinking and intellectual development, and it is very telling that it is reduced to just another area where students are forced to regurgitate factoids instead of demonstrating complex thinking. Granted, if you pay much attention to what passes for the US Government it is clear that there is not much critical thinking going on there.

While Bernstein does not devote his entire article to those responsible for the drive towards more testing he does make note that “the drivers of the policies that are changing our schools…are the wealthy corporations that profit form the policies they help define and the think tanks and activist organization that have learned how to manipulate the levers of power, often to their own financial or ideological advantage.” And though it is not specifically stated one might have hoped that students sufficiently versed in ideas of Politics, and critical thinking, would be able to see through the guise of these “drivers.”

As testing drives ever more coursework and critical thinking becomes something “not on the curriculum” it bodes ill not only for teachers and professors, but also for the students themselves. Participation in a democratic society requires the ability to think critically about the issues of the day and to be able to understand the history behind those issues, which can not be easily measured by filling in “B” instead of “C.”

Standardized tests require students to produce sheets of answers that can be easily fed into machines, not students who can question the test itself or the machines that their answers are fed into.

Granted, that may be the whole point.

[Note – In Bernstein’s article he links to a blog post titled “Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard” by Anthony Mullen (the 2009 National Teacher of the Year). It is well worth reading]

[Note 2 – There’s also an interesting article about Bernstein’s post on Inside Higher Ed]

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

2 comments on “From the Testing Trenches

  1. Pingback: I publish one links post, I get right to work on another. | Anytime Yoga

  2. Pingback: These Tablets Won’t Cure What Ails Education | LibrarianShipwreck

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