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Standardized Tests: The Illegitimacy of No Child Left Behind

Updated on October 15, 2012

Across the country, school districts are feverishly embarking on an annual exercise in futility as panicked administrators and teachers formulate plans on how their students will rise to new heights and strive to meet the increasingly unreachable expectations of standardized testing. With many states now tying educator pay to test success, the stakes are rising precipitously.

It is all the outgrowth of the unconquerable and common sense devouring beast known as No Child Left Behind, a law designed to create an educational utopia that has instead mutated into a dystopian land of horrors.

Ironically, each year more and more students are left behind as the level of proficiency continues to ascend until everyone achieves the 100% standard that could only have been established by some bureaucrat who was deranged, delusional, or dependent on mind-altering substances. Such a notion lends itself to the conclusion that every child in America is capable of not only gaining admission to an Ivy League university, but also completing a degree there.

Unfortunately, the educational policymakers who conjure these beliefs, lacking any empirical form, press the schools to do more, and those in the system have little choice than to pull out all the stops to make it happen. In a valiant attempt to keep their jobs, they develop pages of corrective measures that would be more useful as fire starter.

Why? Because the problems behind the low tests scores are more complicated and encompassing than anything administrators and teachers can remedy in a school setting. These problems are so deep-seeded that if students took the tests repeatedly the scores might only improve nominally.

There are essentially five paramount problems that unless they are addressed on a grand scale, the problems will remain. More testing will not solve it, only exacerbate it.

Unrealistic Expectations

Initially, the benchmark for Adequate Yearly Progress increased only a handful of percentage points each year, but the past few years it has leaped by almost ten-percent annually in the accelerated quest to reach the delusional 100% of all students demonstrating proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Despite the billing "No Child Left Behind"--as the goal posts keep moving--more children are falling way behind. Students with learning disabilities or those who lack the necessary aptitude simply can’t score high enough because they don’t have the ability, or many questions on the test extend beyond their social and cultural experiences. And this adversely affects the scores. Regardless of the amount of tutoring or even adapting of these tests, there is a significant percentage that will never pass. However, many of these young people possess skills and talents in areas outside higher level reading or math skills. They may be able to dismantle and rebuild an engine, build a house, install electrical wiring, or do plumbing. Their skills in answering standardized test questions in areas far outside their range of knowledge and expertise makes them appear poorly educated or lazy.

Think about it. When your car doesn’t start and you need a mechanic or the toilet is overflowing and you need a plumber, do you really give a damn about whether they were proficient on their high school standardized tests. Hell no! You want the car running and the toilet to stop.

These individuals are valuable members of the business community who perform vital services. We shouldn’t judge them by a test score when they will have the expertise to build and repair the things the rest of us don’t understand. As Will Rogers once said, “Everyone is ignorant about something,” no matter how intelligent or well-educated.

Student Accountability (or lackthereof)

While the unrealistic expectations set the students up to fail, there has been little done to increase their accountability. In most school districts, the students bear no consequences for a poor test—no failing grade, no required retake, no graduation requirement. The onus is totally on the teachers and administrators. Unequivocally, elementary students do better on the tests because they are more easily motivated (bribed). Middle and high school students view the tests as a waste of time that means nothing, so many who might do well, give less than a stellar effort. Incredulously, some actually want to see their schools fail! To the credit of some states, passing such a test is mandatory for graduation. Students may take the tests more than once, but must attend tutoring and intervention sessions prior to their retest. Just design the tests to fit the student, rather than the other way around, especially for those students who view the tests as a waste of time because they know they can’t pass them.

Socio-Economic Barriers


Possibly the most significant obstacle blocking academic achievement in both rural and urban settings is not educational, but societal. There is a direct correlation between the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches and test scores.

Moreover, students from impoverish families struggle for a number of reasons, from parents being poorly educated and their perceived value of education. Though it is far from a startling revelation, studies show that students who read on a regular basis fare well on tests. Most often, these kids come from parents who emphasized reading at an early age. Another huge surprise.

But in many homes food on the table and clothes for the kids trump the relatively superfluous attention to reading and education in general. Schools cannot suddenly wave a magic wand and ameliorate socio-economic circumstance, through Lord knows, they often try, through a long list of programs. Until these conditions change—and there are few answers how-- the cycle will continue and expand.

Those who Don’t and Won’t Read


Fewer and fewer kids read. Most are incessantly plugged into technology, which is beneficial in moderation, but video games, Facebook, texting, and web surfing suck up time that should be spent reading—and thinking. When most kids do read, they merely look at words on the page, without mentally engaging themselves in the story. It is a hollow effort, though they believe they are reading. Rather, it’s a form of multi-tasking: physically doing one thing while thinking about another.

When contrasted with the instantaneous technology at their fingertips, reading is tedious and boring. It doesn’t provide the quick gratification of a video game or even a text message. Many credible studies have discovered that the unremitting use of technology actually makes people dumber, hampering their in-depth thinking ability. Is this going to change? It’s likely to worsen, and test scores will reflect the trend.

Mile Wide and Foot Deep Assessments


The tests are flawed: they are a mile-wide and a foot deep. Because their range of assessment is limited, they attempt to herd students into core areas, with no regard for their abilities outside them. Employers seek those who can communicate well, but that goes beyond writing. It also includes listening and speaking. Presentation skills are paramount in life for everyone, yet most school sdon’t require students to take a speech class, and standardized tests—because it is unfeasible—don’t measure it. Nor do they measure the creativity that a student might express in art class, a unique musical ability, or athletic talent. Many people have gone on to distinguished careers as artists, musicians and athletes. Teachers are trained to tap into the Multiple Intelligences, those areas where students learn more efficiently and excel. Standardized tests effectively nullify their skills and render them unimportant and superfluous. Further exacerbating the problem is the necessity of school districts to eviscerate curriculum, slashing art, music, and physical education classes, while furloughing core subject teachers, resulting in barely manageable class sizes. More than 15 students in a primary grade class, 20 in intermediate, and more than 22 in a high school classroom are too many. Teaching disintegrates into crowd control and everybody loses.

No matter how much preparing, coaxing, cajoling, or threatening teachers and administrators do in their infinite quest to raise scores, there will always be a plateau, and likely, we have reached it.

Ultimately, the purpose of education is two-fold: motivate and teach young people to think, and to instill a sense of work ethic in producing responsible citizens.

It is that simple, and more schools are accomplishing these goals, irrespective of superfluous test scores.

If we really want to determine the effectiveness of schools, let’s look at how students fare after they graduate. What they accomplish as parents, employees, entrepreneurs, and community members determines their value, not a score on a barely-remembered battery of test that prove themselves not worth the time or money to produce, complete, or grade.

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