What’s in a Test?



Supporters of the Common Core have to reckon with one immutable truth: testing does not measure everything. Whether or not it measures anything important at all is up for debate. The fact that it does not measure everything is beyond dispute.

Last year I had a student in my 11th grade United States History class. Let us call her Tammy, which is not her real name. Tammy’s grades on homework assignments and exams were not the lowest and not the highest. From September until June she maintained a fairly average grade. I do not recall her bombing any exams or missing an appreciable amount of homework. She was consistently in the middle of the pack.

Tammy is a fairly typical student as well. She is into the same teenaged things that her peers also enjoy: the urban slang, the fashion, the music and everything else right on down the line. She strikes me as a student who, typically, sees school as something that people just do. I would imagine the prospect of going to school every day does not necessarily fill her with joy, nor does it fill her with dread.

In other words, Tammy is what you might call a kid who flies under the radar.

By the end of the year, however, she did break away from the pack in one important respect. Like many other history teachers, I try to infuse some current events into each lesson. Usually, this means shedding light on a particular modern-day problem which is a holdover from the past. This is a way to show students that history, especially American history, is not a neat straight line from barbarism to civilization. Not everything that happens is a step in an enlightened direction. Martin Luther King once said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. While this might be true, this arc is made up of small zig-zags and dead ends. These are the things to which I try to draw my students’ attention.

As time went on, Tammy seemed to really start to care about the problems that comprise the zig-zags and dead ends of the moral arc. She would ask questions that demonstrated this. Hers were not questions meant to clarify what was going to be on the next exam. Instead, she asked questions that showed she was starting to plumb the depths of the problems of the world around her. She seemed genuinely interested in injustices like poverty and racism that still dog the United States today, despite the portrayal in most textbooks that we have reached the end of history where these problems really no longer exist. Her mind seemed to be opening up to the world around her, which is always my number one goal for my students.

When it came time to take the United States Regents Exam in June, Tammy passed quite easily with a good grade. The only problem was that she had never passed the Global History Regents Exam from the previous year. She took it at the end of 10th grade, then in the summer between 10th and 11th grade, then in the middle of the 11th grade and then at the end of the 11th grade and she failed each time. In each case she got a grade in the lower 60s, which is to say that she barely failed.

The Global exam is a little tougher than the U.S. History exam. It tests a two-year curriculum as opposed to the one-year curriculum in U.S. History. It also demands a little bit of knowledge about every place in the world, as opposed to U.S. History that demands knowledge about one country. Students generally receive lower grades on the Global exam than the U.S. exam.

Unfortunately for Tammy, the Global exam is a requirement for graduation. She has completed every other class and Regents test required for graduation except for this one. This past summer, as she was waiting to take the latest version of the exam, I saw her in the lobby of the school with flash cards. It was obvious that she had been studying. It was also obvious that the exam was weighing heavily on her mind. She seemed genuinely concerned that she would not be able to graduate due to this test. She has two more cracks at this exam before she is scheduled to graduate in June. It would be a shame if one silly exam in one subject held her back from moving on.

Tammy’s situation is a perfect example of what is wrong with the obsession over standardized testing. Thanks to the Common Core and the Race to the Top teacher evaluations, students in each grade stand to be tested several times a year. These tests do not exist to help schools or students. They only serve to punish them. Students will be left back and teachers will be fired if kids fail these exams. It is the stick of education reform promising to beat us all over the heads.

How can you test the fact that Tammy started to gain an appreciation for American History? How can you test the fact that she started opening her mind to the world? In 5 or 10 years, Tammy might become deeply involved with some cause or dedicate her life to bettering the human condition in some way, all because of a seed that was planted in high school. There is no way to test that.

The corporate purveyors of standardized exams and the Neoliberal cheerleaders of Common Core do not care about any of these things. One can only surmise that they do not want teachers to plant seeds. Testing will do nothing but turn schools into test-prep centers. It will encourage no other goal than gaming the next exam. Despite their claims of preparing kids for the “21st century”, the Arne Duncans and David Colemans of the world only wish to prepare our kids for the next round of bubbles to be filled in. They only wish to encourage the type of myopic, short-term thinking that led to the Wall Street crash in 2008.

Just like the Common Core encourages kids to do, the Wall Street banksters who tanked the economy never looked beyond the slips of paper that were in front of them. Context and how their actions might be affecting the wider world did not register at all. The types of seeds their greed might have been planting were irrelevant to them. The education reformers, many of whom are straight from the financial world, wish to train the next generation to be exactly like them.

I sincerely hope Tammy is able to eke out a passing grade on the next Global exam. She should know that the fact she has not been able to reach some arbitrary cut-off number on a three-hour exam does not speak to her ability as a student or as a human being. It speaks to the twisted incentives put in place by those who run our education systems. She has done her part by coming to school, studying and waking up to the world around her.

Unfortunately, this testing craze is just beginning to heat up. The reformers are salting the earth to ensure that no seeds will ever be able to grow again.

One response to “What’s in a Test?

  1. “If you could lead through testing, the U.S. would lead the world in all education categories. When are people going to understand you don’t fatten your lambs by weighing them?”~Jonathan Kozol
    i think that really sums it all up.

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