Wielding high-stakes tests, a noisy alliance of politicians, corporate CEOs and media pundits seems intent on standardizing education, proclaiming that every kid in America should march in lockstep through the same curriculum. These so-called standards advocates send out a message about widespread school failure rebutted most recently by Richard Rothstein in The Way We Were: The Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement, a Century Foundation report showing that public schools are doing as well or better than ever and that most parents are happy with their children’s schools. But even for struggling schools, tougher tests and more uniformity are not going to do anything but push kids into the dropout bins and drive creative teachers out the door in even greater numbers than they are leaving in now.

Last January, for example, 280,000 fourth graders across New York State took a $5.8 million reading test designed by CTB/McGraw-Hill. For months preceding the test, newspaper reports documented a mounting hysteria: Teachers abandoned reading aloud to students, substituting practice on test-taking techniques; parents supervised mind-numbing workbook drills at home; and 9-year-olds confessed to reporters that they worried they might fail the big test and thereby shame their school, neighborhood and country.

If we’re going to subject fourth graders to such scary tests, you would think we’d insist that the test writers have some savvy about what those fourth graders should know. But consider this: Nine-year-old test takers across New York were shown pictures of labels from different brands of pancake syrup and asked to choose “the real McCoy,” a term defined by the test writers as “anything of true worth or value.” The labels show maple “style” syrup, 2 percent maple syrup, syrup with artificial maple flavor and 100 percent pure. In the real world, where plenty of 9-year-olds accompany their parents to the grocery store, twenty-four-ounce containers of Aunt Jemima Lite and Vermont Maid, with maple syrup contents of 2 percent and zero, each cost $3.59. Eight ounces of Butternut Farm Grade A Medium Amber pure maple syrup costs $12.95. How many actual consumers choose the $1.61 an ounce product over the one costing $0.149? So what’s an average fourth grader to think? That she won’t find “true value” in the food on her own kitchen table?

People who try to point out the absurdity of test questions by citing examples are warned that the tests are “secure” and that if secrecy is breached lawyers will call. This is not an idle threat. Thirty-year-veteran teacher George Schmidt is being sued for $1 million by the Chicago Board of Education for exposing the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations (CASE) test questions to public view (after students took the tests). Try this one out, for example:

4. Economic systems determine which one of the following? [emphasis added]
      A. what trade should take place
      B. food and language
      C. how much goods are worth
      D. which people should be employed in certain jobs

The political potency of the testing issue shows no signs of abating. Once Congress shelved President Clinton’s plan for national reading and math tests, White House support shifted to Goals 2000, a plan calling for withholding federal funds for disadvantaged children from states that don’t adopt such policies as denying third graders promotion and twelfth graders a diploma on the basis of a single standardized test. And Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush recently took a page from Soviet tank tactics as taught at the Frunze Academy–feed your winners and starve your losers–when he pledged to take public funds from schools whose students test poorly.

The “standards” agenda has been refined at school restructuring meetings hosted by such CEOs as IBM chief Lou Gerstner and attended by the nation’s governors, other corporate executives and representatives of the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Teachers have been conspicuously absent from these meetings. But educrats in twenty states have duly collected their federal money by instituting tough tests. New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills announced that he didn’t think fourth graders would do well on the January reading exam but said that subjecting 9-year-olds to tests they can’t pass is “one of the strategies to change things for the better.” (The 3,000 kids in New York City who were mistakenly sent to summer school because of a scoring error by CTB/McGraw Hill might not agree.) Likewise, when 98 percent of the schools in Virginia flunked the new state test, Kirk Schroder, president of the state board of education, announced that he is confident their testing program will become “a national model for excellence in measuring student achievement.”

Standardized tests have been familiar fare in schools for decades. But until recently, teachers and parents used test results as one gauge among many of a child’s progress. A child’s promotion (or a school’s survival) did not depend on the results of one test written by a committee accountable to no one; teachers taught the basics but were free to shape the curriculum around their students’ diverse needs and interests. Frustrated parents are beginning to rebel against the new regime. In Massachusetts, parents made headlines in May by keeping their children home for two weeks when the tests were being given. Parents in Ohio, California and Oregon did likewise. In early June, Wisconsin legislators responded to parent pressure and voted to kill the new $10.1 million high school graduation test, the hallmark of Governor Tommy Thompson’s education agenda. The students, teachers and parents with the most to gain–or lose–from public education can tell the difference between real standards and standardization.