Standardized Exams are not about Standards

Posted by By at 24 May, at 08 : 22 AM Print

There are two groups of people: those who think there are two groups of people and those who don’t.

It’s an old joke, but when it comes to school, my experience is there are two groups of kids: those who know, or at least believe, they’ll be successful and those who know they won’t.

The first group has two groups: those who know their work will pay off in success and those who somehow find the confidence to at least hope their work will pay off.

The second group comprises those don’t understand the point of studying, and those who simply cannot get the lessons being delivered.

The first group has two groups …

This could go on, with each successive group of students being divided in two.

And most of the groups may be found gathered in the same classroom – students whose parents have college degrees and professional success, and students who have no such experience.

Some students figure out they can barely pass and still get a diploma, so why work so hard. That doesn’t mean they are not paying at least some attention. Many of them will eventually find something they want to do, and suddenly they will reveal they really are able to read and do math.

One such student, when he was in first grade, drew low grades from a teacher who was unhappy with, among other things, his penmanship practice. The lad would trace a 5, and then draw another or two freehand. But the teacher wanted six of them. So he kept drawing 5s, but by the fourth one, he was drawing an S, and by Number Six, it was a very sloppy S.

“I showed I could do it with the first one,” he said. “Why do I have to keep doing it.”

He had not yet seen “Karate Kid,” or met his own “Mr. Miyagi.”

I run into him now and then as an adult. He’s a darn good plumber, top of his class when it was time to study for licenses, his three kids pulling in pretty good grades in school. Sometimes it just takes a little time to find a reason.

A three-hospital consortium in Boston, Mass. has begun offering free training, including college, that offers employees a path up the professional and financial ladder. A medical technician will become a Registered Nurse, and a food service worker earns 50 percent more pay as a laboratory technician.

These are people already working in the medical buildings, being offered opportunities in a program that presumes they have acquired the foundation and desire that will allow them to advance in specialized fields.

And therein lies the problem with public schools today. Somehow we’ve been sold the notion that all kids can learn the same material at the same speed and regurgitate it on demand in uniform amounts. And when that doesn’t happen …

In 2001, then Pres. George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, loudly proclaimed as a means to make educators accountable and all our students A-students. Buried deep in the fine print was one of my favorite provisions, directing every school to turn over to the military the names of all 17-year-old male students. Apparently, the Army couldn’t wait until the lads turned 18, when they would be legally required to register their availability for service.

The other thing NCLB did was provide the basis for a national testing system, with the states charged to come up with tests that met federal standards called Adequate Yearly Progress.

In 2005, former (under Pres. George H.W. Bush) U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch was a vocal supporter of NCLB. She said the annual standardized tests would ensure schools met the standards.

“All this attention and focus is paying off for younger students,” Ravitch wrote, “who are reading and solving mathematics problems better than their parents’ generation.”

Last month, she told NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross she had changed her mind. The tests have become, she said, a tool to blame teachers and teacher unions and divert public money to commercial education facilities. Ravitch – and others – have pointed out private schools get the best students, resulting in higher test scores, and “prove” the public schools are deficient.

“But if they’re not educating the same kids, then they’re not doing better,” Ravitch said.

Basically, education funds are being used to prove the education system doesn’t work – with excellent results. This year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan says, about 80 percent of the nation’s schools will fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress. He touts a new program called Race to the Top, which Ravitch said retains all the punishment of NCLB and promised funding to states come up with plans to replace their “failing” schools with a free market education system.

We rightfully put a lot of stock in our graduation rate. Dropouts will not learn the basics they need to make use of later job-specific training.

But although we want to brag about how many of our kids are accepted to college, one report I have been unable to find is what those kids are doing five years out of high school. Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place, asking the wrong people.

We should make every effort to ensure our offspring meet minimum standards that would allow them to become whatever their interests and innate abilities will allow.

And we should not put too much stock in standardized test scores. If we look there to define failure, we look in the wrong place.

Readers may contact John Messeder at

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- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at - Email jmesseder

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