Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's wrong with standardized testing?

Standardizing works well on a car assembly line. That's because all the car parts arrive at their appointed place on the assembly line,  each part exactly the same as all the others of its type. If one part is faulty, it has to be scrapped so that each car can be assembled in exactly the same way with identical cars coming out at the end.  That's why you will rarely see a two door Ford with four doors and a wheel on the roof.

Children, alas, don't come don't arrive at school as identical parts; nor. I should hope, would we want them to be identically assembled at the end. Children come to school very different from each other, and those differences have a profound affect on how and what they will learn. Some are poor, from families that have been poor for generations. That has an affect on how they see their future, and on their attitude to learning. Some come from cultures such as Judaism or Chinese, with a long tradition of respect for learning. They come with very different abilities and interests and potentials, both physical and intellectual.

We cannot make them all the same. NOR SHOULD WE WANT TO MADE THEM THE SAME.  WE SHOULD WANT EACH CHILD TO BE THE BEST HE OR SHE CAN BE.  If what you want coming off the line at graduation day is a warm-blooded robot, send the kid to dog obedience school.

What standardized tests do is to force all the teachers to teach very different students all in the same say. In the process, they have throw away the years of training they had at a great expense for both them and us. It puts pressure on them to teach from the texts, and even at the same pace. All that is reminiscent of the education minister in France who said, "Ah, two o'clock on Thursday. Every grade six child in France is on page 104 of mathematics."  That used to be a joke. Now, in New Brunswick, it's no joke. It's farce become tragedy.

The use of stadardized test forces teachers to teach for the test - not for the subject, and certainly not for the children.  As well, it profoundly discourages any innovation by teachers. Teaching is a trade you learn at university only in its basic form. From that point, much of the learning of how to teach comes from the experience of teaching. Why on earth is New Brunswick throwing all that experience into the rubbish heap?

In effect, teachers are being forced to do a job that cannot be done, and should not be done. The strain on them is terribly demoralizing, particularly as some principals will want their schools to do well on the tests so that they can get promoted. (Yes, Virginia, there are such principals.) Nor is it fair to put the full blame on such principals. To take a stand against a policy advocated by the Board, the Department of Education, and others I shall come to later would be a career-ending move.

What really puts the heat on is publication of school rankings based on such tests. Such publication reduces education to a horse race, misleading the public to think the rankings are due to teaching quality. They aren't. As we've seen, all sorts of factors enter into standardized test results. Even worse, the words standardized and ranking suggest to the general public this is really scientifically designed. It isn't. And it can't be. Science works on standard and defined subjects with everything repeatable. That's why you can't even mix hydrogen and oxygen and be sure of getting water.

As well, the notion that pubication of results encourages schools to compete is nonsense. For a start, any competition produces only one winner. Hat's off. It also produces hundreds and even thousands of losers, who are not likely to be much improved by the experience. I was a loser in high school. I know what losing does to most people.

In any case, such a competition, even if it happens, simply encourages bad education.

And it gets worse.

Earlier this year, the Department of Eduation circulated a questionnaire for parents. It was the most incompetent and useless such document I have ever seen. Consider this question, for example.

Is your child's teacher working hard to improve the quality of education in the class?  Yes    No

1. How many average parents can have the faintest idea of how hard a teacher is working?
2. How many parents have the training and exposure to know how to judge quality of education?
3. If a gifted teacher is not working hard, but it producing high quality education, is the answer yes or no?
4. If a teacher is working hard, but is still a bad teacher, is the answer yes or no?

No questionnaire maker I have even seen would produce such an incompetent and useless form. But the experts at the Department of Education did. And all the other questions are just as good.

So why did the editorialist of The Moncton Times&Tribune write such a kiss-kiss editorial about  standardization? Why were the news reports written by a person who seems to know little about education? Why did the editor ignore the damage this is doing to chldren and teachers? Well, yes, it's true that the editorialist probably did know,  and generally seems pretty dozey on the subject of education. But, then, if you know nothing about a subject, why write an editorial on it?

That's linked to another question. In a continent that has thousands of experts, why is the government of New Brunswick modelling its schools on advice from The Atlantic Institute of Marketing? And why is the AIMS taking a role in the testing? It doesn't sound like an education organization.

We'll take a look at that. But, first, there are things we need to know about "think tanks", things The Moncton Times&andTranscript is not likely to tell us.


  1. Hello again:

    On the subject of standardized testing, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives ( has a lot of information. You can find a whole bunch of articles, commentaries, etc, on this subject by going to They have a wealth of material.

  2. thanks. I'll take a look. All the faculty at teaching training programmes know that as well, of course. But thehy're pretty gutless lot. I 've never even heard of them cricizing a governmnet programme.