America has become obsessed with educational testing. It seems to be our magic bullet for all social and economic problems. This has given rise to a far-ranging national debate about the scope, worth, justification, and outcomes of testing. The value of Anya Kamenetz’s new book, “The Test,” lies in her ability to avoid the soapbox style of too many books on education reform today. Her journalistic talents coupled with her role as a mother of a student on the brink of testing humanizes this book, making it a perfect entry for parents who are too deep in the muck of testing to have the clarity of distance. “While we subject our offspring to endless measurement, what is really being tested?” she asks. “It’s our values as parents. . . ”
Our schools are a maze of tests: pre-tests, performance tests, diagnostic tests, tests for getting into high school and college — the list is long. There are so many that parents and schoolchildren feel like the proverbial gerbil on the wheel — feeling the need to always run faster and farther yet never getting anywhere. We know the tests are important in determining our children’s future and the future of our schools. Kamenetz estimates students today spend 25 percent of their time prepping or taking tests. The Pittsburgh school system administered more than 270 tests in the 2013-14 school year. How did we get to this point?
Education has always been important for social mobility in the United States. The decline of the middle class (1980s to present) caused by political and economic shifts globally and domestically, set many looking for potential fixes. Kamenetz argues that educational decline and the historical importance of education for the middle class combined to produce a powerful political narrative.
Testing is not new. Kamenetz traces the science back to anthropometrics in the 1800s, part social science and part eugenics. By tracing the role eugenics has played in educational sorting, we are reminded that ideology has always been a problematic partner of measure. By the time we get to No Child Left Behind in 2001, the philosophical and theoretical have been mixed and blurred with the complicated reality of students’ lives. The philosophical stance of the law is that all children deserve an equal opportunity of success. And if you don’t measure up as teachers or schools, then we will hold you accountable. But how and what do we measure? What’s the baseline? We haven’t clearly sorted that out yet. The second issue is these tests were designed to measure systemwide achievements but now are being used to measure individual achievements, such as whether a student advances to the next grade. Mistakes get made, students suffer in the imperfect system we have. Kamenetz’s big takeaway is that we need to develop more nuanced and better assessments — she calls this the “Team Unicorn” approach. This approach uses existing standardized tests, but combines them with portfolios and other measurements, reminding us that tests are not the only way to assess learning. She argues that accountability needs to be community based — to be measured by community norms and values — to have meaning. To give up accountability to bureaucrats is to give up on democracy.
But, what can parents do now? Kamenetz says we are in too deep to expect a quick pivot so suggests we opt out of testing when we can. Parents need to be more involved, know what the tests measure and how they are used, to take the pressure off their children. But, as she herself states, many students are poor, struggling with economic realities and unstable home lives. The assumption that all parents have the knowledge and time to craft individualized support systems for their children is fantasy. What she proposes will work for families firmly in the middle class. What about the rest, the families who are struggling? We await that book. Until then, some families have this book as a blueprint.
Richard Greenwald is a professor and the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College, CUNY.