The Corner

Education

Standardized Testing and Populism

(Pixabay)

Wariness about standardized testing is a somewhat surprising area of agreement between Republicans and Democrats.

Bernie Sanders recently wrote: “ I voted against No Child Left Behind because it was as clear to me then, as it is now, that . . . high-stakes standardized testing would not improve our schools or enhance our children’s ability to learn.”

Meanwhile, down in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp and state Superintendent Richard Woods announced a plan to cut five mandatory standardized tests for Georgia public-school students, including four in high school. Kemp said, “When you look at the big picture, it’s clear Georgia simply tests too much . . . On test days it’s making students physically sick because they’re worried they will not do well.”

I was talking about this with another conservative recently, and he contended that standardized testing is an important good, if one that may be overused at the grade-school level. He argued, somewhat persuasively, that standardized testing helps meritocracy and the measurable accumulation of knowledge, that doesn’t allow teachers to play favorites, helps prioritize results over good intentions, and is the bane of anti-accountability teachers’ unions.

And I get what this conservative is saying. On paper, all of that is right.

But a lot of young people — and probably a lot of their parents — live in fear that they will be judged by tests that measure their value and potential on seemingly arbitrary criteria, and that if they screw up on that, they’ll be shunted off into some category of “lesser” people. There’s a reason this pops up so much in everything from young adult fiction to dystopian films. Teenagers in particular feel like their parents don’t understand them, their teachers don’t understand them, their community doesn’t understand them . . . so how the heck is a giant multiple-choice test going to understand what their talents are and what they’re capable of?

I don’t think this is a reflection of the “everybody gets a participation trophy” mentality we all enjoy mocking. I think it’s driven by the universal human yearning to be recognized, and to be told that we have value. Not every student is going to get straight ‘A’s, and only one will be valedictorian. But all of them want to be told that they have something useful to contribute and that they matter.

And while everyone’s middle-school and high-school experience is different, I think that it’s clear that only a small minority of people come through high school feeling like their schools and communities recognized their full potential for greatness, nurtured it, encouraged it, and helped them along. Even for the ones that did excel in some area, they may feel overlooked; the straight-A students may envy the jocks, the jocks may envy the valedictorian, the valedictorian envies the homecoming king and queen.

(For what it’s worth, I was pretty darn good at standardized tests, so this is less “sour grapes” than a recognition that I thrived in the late-80s-early-90s regimen of standardized tests, while others who were almost certainly brighter than me flopped because of test-taking anxiety.)

By the way, that fear of being seen as “lesser” because of a failure to meet some arbitrary standard doesn’t stop in the teen years. Plenty of grown adults resent the idea of being looked down upon because of their income level, their job title, where they work, what school or university they went to, what neighborhood they live in, what car they drive . . . at the heart of the debate about standardized testing is how schools (and colleges and universities, and graduate schools, and employers, and society at large) measures the value of a person. And quite a few people feel undervalued and ignored . . .

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