Sunday, August 21, 2011

Standardized Tests: Merely A Symptom of the Disease

Guest post by Teresa McCloskey

I recently discovered there is a surge of parents across the nation who are protesting the use of standardized testing in our schools and encouraging parents to opt out (here’s the group).  I have read articles comparing the testing to child abuse and articles from teachers who are promoting the “Save Our Schools” campaign while seeking testing reform.  I have also seen articles about the cheating related to these tests like this one and this one by school staff and administrators – understandable as there are federal dollars attached to the outcome.  Baltimore and Atlanta are surely not alone, but they happen to be districts which have been caught thus far.  One article even asked whether innovative children could start to blackmail teachers in relation to turning in higher or lower test scores.

It is apparent the issue of standardized testing has more questions than answers, but in reading these articles and seeing the debates on which method of measuring the success of children’s learning in the public system, I keep coming back to the same point of view – the tests are not the problem, the entire institutional system known as public education (or government controlled education) is broken and failing.  

To debate standardized testing is akin to debating on how to treat slaves better and how to determine which slaves are being the most productive on the plantation.  Why are more people not questioning why we have enslaved our children in this inhumane system which more closely resembles a prison or mental hospital than anything related to what their lives outside of school will look like?

Adults often chuckle and say with a bit of mischievous glee, “I don’t remember anything I learned in school!  I haven’t used algebra in over 20 years.” Or, “I didn’t care about history then, and I don’t care about it now.”  Shouldn’t our common experiences of having spent forced hours of boredom in classes which held no interest and have proven to be of no use to us in adulthood make us want to do better by our children?  School, in its current form, appears to primarily serve as little more than publicly funded child care storage.  While children may enter school with excitement and curiosity, they quickly learn it is far more important to sit still, be quiet, raise their hand to speak, and respect authority OR ELSE.  

The most formative years of a child’s life, the elementary years, are spent with some time devoted to learning new skills, more time devoted to busy work repeating these skills, and most of the time being herded and coerced into doing what does NOT come naturally to small, energetic people.  When a child has difficulty containing their natural enthusiasm for life and wants to exert their energy by running, jumping, talking, or playing, they are told this is wrong and to comply or risk being in trouble. When a child persists, they suffer consequences and, in a growing number of cases, they wind up being medicated or labeled as a multiple problem child… for nothing more than being a normal child with a high energy level.

The testing itself primarily focuses on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and math.  Sadly, the testing does nothing to gauge children like Peggy Sheehy with natural aptitudes to areas not covered in those areas.  There is no standardized way to test for a musical or artistic aptitude.  A child who has a natural rapport with animals or a green thumb may not test well in reading and math.  For some people, their inherent abilities and talents simply cannot be measured in a standardized way.  Yet while they may have individualized success outside of school, test advocates would label them as standardized failures.  How does this help our children?

I did not teach my children to roll over, sit up, crawl, or walk, yet they all did it of their own volition and in their own time.  Comparing them to others only caused needless worry and stress while solving nothing, but I also knew instinctively when they were in need of extra support.  As the mother of 4, it is my experience that kids are born curious.  Children have a desire to know about everything; thus, our babies shove any object they can get their hands on into their mouths and our 2-4 year olds go through that endless, “Why?” phase.  It is undeniable - kids WANT to learn, they WANT to know.  So why do we believe the only way children will ever learn anything is to hand them over to the government?  Why do we assume all children born within a 1 year period of each other must be at the same level of every other child born in the same time frame or risk being called a failure or slow learner?  Schools most consistently drive the natural curiosity out of kids to the point where it is accepted that learning is a horrible chore which they are forced to endure as evidenced in this video.  If we would simply feed their curiosity and allow each child to expand on their inherent strengths, free of measurement and judgment, I think proponents of the system would be shocked at the unlimited abilities our children possess.

Teresa McCloskey is a mom of 4 boys, 'host' mom to countless exchange students from around the world, wife to one amazing husband, daughter of the King, student, life learner who no longer believes in time outs, naughty spots, spankings, shaming, or the compulsory government indoctrination institution system. John Holt, Alfie Kohn, Naomi Aldort, and Adele Faber are some of my heroes.


  1. I don't mind an attack on standardized education. I agree that it is unjust. I want to abandon the factory model. I even wrote about about why the issue is standardization and coercion rather than "just the test."

    However, a few things bothered me:

    1. The issue is philosophical rather than systemic. Unschooling and homeschooling (or any other system) can be harmful to children. Families can be broken. Parents can be coercive. I know some people who were really wounded by public education. However, I also know people who were really wounded by unschooling.

    2. There is a difference between "public" and "government-controlled." There are plenty of people like me who believe in a return of public education with small schools representing neighborhoods. Historically, one of the first things a community would set up in America was a meeting house, a school and a place of worship (or several places of worship). It is a public, civic institution that should exist to help people to think critically about life.

    3. I support getting rid of compulsory education. If people want to opt out of public education, that's fine. They can also opt out of voting or driving on public roads or going to the park. I support the right to avoid public institutions.

    4. Please don't compare public education to slavery. I don't whip kids. I don't participate in abuse. I ask students to think better about life. I give them a chance to learn to read and write. There is a big difference between a slave driver and a teacher.

    1. She's a nut job and her kids are a mess.

  2. I'm really interested to learn about these people who were "wounded by unschooling." How many people do you know who would make this claim? In what way did having compassionate, loving, in-touch, involved parents harm or wound them? In what way was it hurtful to have their parents facilitate their learning and meet the child's needs by providing them with a rich learning environment?

  3. P.S. Not all slaves were whipped or physically abused. It was abuse enough to strip them of their humanity, dignity, and free will - the same as is done to children - our most vulnerable citizens - by compelling them, often against their will, to attend government institutions.

  4. I have known people who had compassionate, well-intentioned, loving parents and yet they were wounded by the system of home-schooling. I have also known some who were wounded because they had parents who were impatient or who lacked content knowledge when they needed it.

    I've also known some had great home-schooling experiences.

    I think the problem in your thinking is that you've made it binary. There are teachers in public schools who are compassionate, loving and in-touch when those students have parents who are negligent. I've known of teachers who meet the child's needs by providing them with a rich learning environment.

    I also know of compassionate, loving parents who send children to public schools.

    With regards to slavery, I think your definition gets elusive. I agree with you that compulsory schooling is wrong. However, in most states, children can opt-out of public schooling. So, really, it's the parents making it "compulsory." That's hardly slavery.

    How about compulsory "stay out of the road when cars are coming?" Is that slavery? What about "actually, you do need to eat your dinner when the family is eating?" Is that slavery since it's a compulsory requirement of living in our home?

    The notion that compulsory equals slavery is a bad view of slavery. It's an inaccurate metaphor. Slavery is forced labor. While I agree that there are many schools and many classrooms that need to change, there are many classrooms where children have not been stripped of their humanity, dignity or free will.

    1. I know this woman. She is not fit to be homeschooling her children. She has serious issues. She is living out her adolescent rebellion well into her 30's by putting her children at a severe disadvantage.

  5. John, one of the best parts of both of your comments is the two paragraphs that start with (if I may quote): "I think the problem in your thinking is that you've made it binary ..."

    And that's the problem I see with most of this post. It is too either/or in its discussion, which really isn't much of a discussion instead of something purposely incendiary. The slavery comparison skirts Godwin's Law a bit because it's meant to be extra harsh and it's meant to get a reaction.

    It is also, as you mentioned, incorrect. And I'll stop there with the slavery part because I do not wish to entertain it.

    However, I will say that Teresa's post has little to no proof of anything except a link or two to things that have already been in the news. Was I the only one NOT shocked by cheating in the standardized test system? I read about the potential to cheat in such a system when I first picked up Freakonomics SIX years ago. And honestly, you need look no further than Al Capone to see cheating in a bureaucratic system.

    You offer quite a bit of anecdotal evidence, but where are your hard facts? Sure, there are plenty of things that I learned 20 years ago in algebra class that I barely remember, but there is an entire library of information that I walked away with from English and social studies. Do you know how many times I've re-read "To Kill a Mockingbird?" Do you know I wouldn't have enjoyed that book if it weren't for my 10th grade teacher?

    You want to throw the baby out with the bath water because you refuse to see the nuance and subtlety in this entire issue. Strip down the system and throw it away and you will find something that replaces it and is just as "broken and failing" as you so eloquently put it.


    I have no opposition to the concept of homeschooling or unschooling or private schooling. What I have opposition to is people like you who instead of wanting to have an intelligent conversation about the state of education simply piss all over it and declare themselves right.

    You're not. Neither am I. That's the whole point.

  6. Btw, John, by "you", I meant the original poster, not you. Bad use of pronouns! Bad English teacher! Bad!

  7. I am far more concerned about the effects of vouchers and expanded charters in Florida than I am about parents who choose another model to follow. There is little evidence that parents, community members, and taxpayers are unsupportive of their public school system, teachers, and neighborhood schools. In fact, the opposite is true. Ed reform advocates count on the damaging effects of the type of divide this creates.

  8. You took the words right out of my mouth. This is my 17th year teaching in public education. How do we change it from within?