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