America’s reliance on standardized tests is creating a generation of intellectual infants

Anti-testing brigade.
Anti-testing brigade.
Image: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Can President Obama revolutionize the American education system before he leaves the White House? Probably not. But his “Testing Action Plan,” or TAP for short, is a step in the right direction.

On Oct. 24, the president took to Facebook to announce TAP, a new set of education guidelines that will reduce the amount of class time spent on standardized test preparation. The three-pronged guidelines prescribe reducing the amount of tests to those that are “worth taking,” that “enhance teaching and learning,” and that use evaluation as just one component of education assessment. After all, “learning is about so much more than filling-in the right bubble,” as Obama concluded at the close of the video.

Critics point out that the Obama administration has largely perpetuated the culture of over-testing through federal mandates inaugurated by the Dubya years (something which Arne Duncan, the president’s outgoing secretary of Education, fully concedes to doing) and that the TAP guidelines are “vague.” Then there’s the rather glaring fact that the education system has become so ensnarled in the for-profit testing industry that we can’t imagine what the school day would be like without test preparation and test taking, or how to finance the system without the industry. The Common Core is big business. As David Dayen for Salon notes, the Big Four private companies—Pearson, ETS, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill— “have spent over $20 million lobbying the government between 2009-2014, insisting on more testing to boost their profits … The testing sector generates $2 billion in annual revenue, so the return on investment is excellent.”

Corporate welfare, in other words, depends on the continuation of the culture of over-testing—the buying of test prep books, the hiring of tutors, and so forth. When education relies on a corporate industry to this extent, large-scale changes may indeed bring some amount of change.

As a college professor who has witnessed the deleterious effect of a test-focused education in her 10 years in the classroom, I can say that Obama’s call for revising standardize testing standards is a welcome and necessary change. Education is, at its heart, designed for a noble purpose: to create thoughtful, independent citizens of the world. School should be about learning to think critically—not learning how to take a test.

Over the past 10 years, students have acquired an increasingly myopic view of their studies, specifically in college. For these young men and women, their secondary school existence seems to have fashioned them into GDP quotients. Their public schools and their teachers’ careers are reliant on standardized testing performance. In this environment, educational experience is a commodity exchange.

Simply put, too much of the American education system has been bastardized by capitalism. Over the past 15 years, the pervasive justification for education—at least for funding it at a federal level—has been construed in economic terms. College, we’re told, is supposed to prepare us for work. Instead of wanting to create civic-minded, thoughtful and autonomous individuals, we’ve reconceived the purpose of education in terms of being productive laborers and making the most money.

In the classroom, where students understand education as this kind of commodity exchange, there is a belief that paying for a course should guarantee an A grade. In my experience, approximately 95% of my students are concerned about their grade average because they’re worried about landing a good job. It is rare to come across a student who takes a literature course or a writing course (I teach both) because they want to learn how to think critically or to communicate their thoughts in clear, cogent prose.

In both my literature and composition courses, students beg for the “right answer,” and want to know if, when writing their papers, they are on the “right track.” They have the most difficulty thinking of thesis statements, because this demands that they rely on their own thoughts rather than the answer provided to them in a book. They want to give the “right” answer from another source. They are scared and reluctant to use the first-person pronoun when writing essays, which to me intimates that they do not trust their own thoughts.

From my perspective, secondary schools are increasingly infantilizing student minds by teaching them how to take tests, with the focus being on how to game the exams. Schools don’t offer opportunities for innovation, ingenuity or creativity.

Don’t listen to the skeptics. Obama’s video statement and TAP guidelines are more than just symbolic. To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates (and Audre Lorde 30 years before him), the American Dream doesn’t seem to be made for a lot of people. But our education system owes every single child the opportunity to become well-reasoned, cultivated citizens. Education humanizes people. It allows them to encounter differences of thought—in the classroom and in texts—that prepares every person for life.