Every new year, I ink all nine SAT test dates on our calendar. Why? Because my husband, John, is a high school tutor, with SAT prep a big wedge of his business. Those last weeks before each test (June 4 is the finale for this school year) bring down a mighty squall for him, full of long hours, revved students, and fretful parents.
So I have a stake in testing — but I'm ambivalent about it, too. You'd think roughly half of the education books would be in favor of standardized testing, half against. No way. They're almost all inimical to the acronym-ical, and not just the SAT. Each state, after all, has its own assessment, from our MCAS, to the TAKS (Texas), to Utah's yearningly named U-PASS, some of them created years ago and the rest after a nudge from the federal No Child Left Behind Act (2001).
With such an alphabet soup, I needed to get the FYI ASAP. One cover blurb grabbed me: The New York Times declares "the [anti-testing] movement now has a guidebook," which is the lure for "The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing — But You Don't Have to Be" (PublicAffairs, 2015). The guidebook's guide is Anya Kamenetz, NPR reporter and former Fast Company senior writer.
She offers 10 arguments, like: "1. We're testing the wrong things. 2. Tests waste time and money. 3. They are making students hate school and turning parents into preppers." Other points explore how the tests penalize diversity and the states game the system to get federal funds. To sum up the problem, Kamenetz cites an economist's koan from 1975, known as Goodhart's Law: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."
There is a long tail here. Her short history of standardized tests goes from a psychologist measuring "the more elementary powers" on visitors to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, to the Binet Scale IQ tests introduced in 1905 in France, to a series of chilling mental acuity tests that were grounded in eugenics. In World War I, the military took over, giving Army Alpha tests (for the literate recruits) and Army Beta (for the not). One of the Alpha test creators helped develop the SAT.
"The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) fills in even more ovals, and it's a fascinating if unwieldy read (the afterword acts as a good SparkNotes). Author Nicholas Lemann, then a staff writer at The New Yorker and now dean emeritus of Columbia Journalism School, had full access to the archives of the Educational Testing Service. And so he colors in the major players: Henry Chauncey, head of the ETS, and Harvard president James Bryant Conant, who hammer out a test to select bright public school students for Harvard, thus breaking the stranglehold of the private-school elite.
These democratic origins seem ironic now, since questions have been raised about how race, class, and ethnicity play into aptitude tests results. Thus to the front lines with "More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing" (Haymarket, 2014). It's an anthology edited by Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Seattle's Garfield High School, site of the news-making 2013 boycott of Washington's MAP test. We get interviews and essays from protesters nationwide, including Garfield teachers and parents like Jeannette Deutermann of Long Island Opt Out: Last year, some 80,000 L.I. students refused to take the Common Core assessment, which was supposed to replace the states' hodgepodge, but instead kicked up yet more controversy.
The problem? Some hold Common Core is merely a test-prep business pipeline. Others say if it's a de facto teacher-assessment tool, what's the benefit for the kids? Finally, if teachers spend more time drilling for the test and less introducing new material, Jack becomes a dull boy. As Diane Ravitch insists in the book's foreword: "What is happening today is so bizarre and anomalous that it cannot prevail."
Yong Zhao, a Chinese-born education professor at the University of Oregon, takes the longest view of all, stressing that we're so new to ubiquitous testing, we don't realize its societal ravages. China's keju civil-service testing system ran from 605 to 1905, when it was discarded for impeding modernity. Americans are chagrined that today's Chinese students regularly boast the top scores for the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).
But a testing culture has "cost China dearly" Zhao writes in "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World" (Jossey-Bass, 2014). Such tests foster homogeneity and discourage intrinsic motivation and innovation. The newish American test-centric system is a Trojan horse, says Zhao. Indeed, "I first saw the spirit of Chinese education reincarnated in the No Child Left Behind Act." I'll think of this again on Oct. 1, the next test marked on our calendar.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.