The United States has required every child in grades 3-8 to take standardized tests in math and reading every year since NCLB was signed into law in 2002. No high-performing nation does this. Typically, they test children once in elementary school, once in middle school, once in high school. Finland, recently designated “the happiest nation in the world” and also high-performing, has no standardized tests in grades 3-8. Teachers write their own tests and are tested to grade them.

Chris Churchill is a columnist for the Albany Times-Union.

Churchill: For better schools, ditch the standardized tests

It’s easy to think of things our kids would be better off doing. Playing in the spring sunshine. Planting a garden. Burying their heads in books. Practicing jump shots. Catching frogs. Learning reading, writing and arithmetic. Learning Urdu. Learning anything.

 The tests are a time suck for teachers, too. They’ll be watching over spiritless and possibly anxious classrooms of test-taking students when they should be, crazy thought here, teaching. We should want our schools alive — with passion and joy, with laughter and curiosity, with play and learning.

Maybe that sounds too romantic for this grim, hard-headed age. Shouldn’t we insist that our children line up for the rat race and defeat their rivals from around the globalized economy?

Even if we swallow that baloney, there’s remarkably little evidence that the national rise of high-stakes standardized testing has done anything to improve schools and learning. As far as I can tell, the only beneficiaries are the big bureaucracies that want more control over classrooms and the big corporations that provide the tests.

The tests certainly haven’t benefited our kids, who, in many districts, are getting shorter recesses so teachers can spend more time in service to the looming tests. Or who, as many parents can attest, view testing days with anxiety and dread.

If the tests were just tests, they might be relatively harmless. But they epitomize something bigger: The madness that applies a production mentality to education. Everything can be neatly quantified, yes siree, not to mention automated, regulated and homogenized!

But children aren’t widgets and schools aren’t factories. You can’t measure the success of a classroom with data points. Standardized testing tells us nothing important about how children experience school.

Tests can’t tell us if Mr. Jones is a much-needed role model for fatherless boys. They can’t tell us how much Mrs. Riley cares for her fourth-graders. They can’t tell us if Ms. Hughes’ eighth-graders feel supported or inspired. They can’t tell us if Mr. Hernandez is changing lives.

All of which illustrates why tying teacher evaluations (and salaries) to test scores is so hideously ludicrous. Such a system rewards an uninspired teacher who devotes every depressing classroom minute to dreary test prep, and it punishes the impassioned teacher who refuses to teach for the test but instead imbues children with a love of learning.

There are other problems. Tests designed by upper-middle-class professionals will, surprise surprise, inherently reward the children of upper-middle-class professionals. Schools attended by poor kids get labeled underperforming or even failing. But lower test scores often result from that very poverty. A child who knows violence, hunger or fear at home won’t do as well on a standardized test, and it’s unfair to expect even a great teacher to overcome that.

Let’s pause here to give the opt-out movement a sincere and robust round of applause. Clap, clap, clap, clap.

The parents who hold their children out of testing — about 20 percent of the statewide total in recent years — are expressing healthy rebellion against the production approach to education. They’re standing up to the consultants and “experts” who claim to know what’s best for kids but prove again and again they don’t. They are saying no to an impersonal education bureaucracy with a vested interest in getting bigger and silencing parental voices.

Clearly, the opt-out movement has been a tremendous success. It has forced New York to back off its testing regime, at least a little. The time devoted to testing students in grades 3 through 8, for example, has been reduced from six days annually to four, including the two days of math testing that begin Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has seemingly shelved his proposal that test scores account for 50 percent of teacher evaluations; the opt-out rebellion put that bad idea on ice. Now, the state Assembly is even considering a bill that would end test-based teacher evaluations altogether.

New York should go further. It should altogether eliminate standardized testing in elementary and middle schools.

Doing so would be a step toward rejecting the insidious idea that education should be evermore standardized. It would bring more local control of schools. It would help recognize what should be obvious: Real teaching can’t be homogenized, because every child learns differently. It’s an inherently individualized process.

As most every parent and teacher knows, learning is about small moments and quiet victories. It’s about relationships built on trust and even love. My God, is there anything more personal or magical or maybe even divine than teaching a small child to read?

There are things that can be measured. Teaching and caring for children are not among them. • 518-454-5442 • @chris_churchill

25 Comments Post your own or leave a trackback: Trackback URL

  1. dienne77 says:

    Now we’re talking!

  2. SomeDAM Poet says:

    Finland, recently designated “the happiest nation in the world”

    “Misplaced Priorities”

    More to life than being happy
    More to life than joyous play
    Testing hard and feeling crappy
    Doubtless are the better way

    “Finland is finished”

    Finland is finished
    Encouraging play!
    Future’s diminished
    On PISA they’ll pay

  3. Yvonne Siu-Runyan says:

    Yes, indeed, DITCH this tests. And…Ditch CCSS, too!

    If left alone by the deformers (let’s call them “cash for CR*P”), public school teachers could make: America smart again.

  4. “New York should go further. It should altogether eliminate standardized testing in elementary and middle schools.

    . . .

    There are things that can be measured. Teaching and caring for children are not among them.”

    Does anyone else spot the incongruency here?

    Overall, though, spot on.

    (The incongruency being that the call should be to eliminate all standardized testing at all levels not just K-8.)

  5. Lisa M says:

    This should be posted in every paper across the nation.

  6. Cross posted at
    with this comment

     William Mathis is managing director of the National Education Policy Center and vice-chair of the Vermont Board of Education. writes here about the inherent flaws of today’s standardized tests.:“They claim to measure “college and career readiness.” Yet, it takes no particular insight to know that being ready for the forestry program at the community college is not the same as astrophysics at MIT. Likewise, “career ready” means many different things depending upon whether you are a health care provider, a convenience store clerk, or a road foreman.

    “The fundamental flaw is pretending that we can measure an educated person with one narrow set of tests. There is no one universal knowledge base for all colleges and careers. This mistake is fatal to the test-based reform theory.

    “This is not to say that standardized testing should be eliminated. It is the single uniform measure across schools. But the very standardized attributes that make them valuable cause harm to those things that are truly important for our children, and our communities.”

    “If we redesigned our measures to address what our state constitutions and citizens tell us is important, we would concentrate on the skills that define success as a citizen, worker and human being. These which include clear and effective communication, creative and practical problem-solving, informed and integrative thinking, responsible and involved citizenship, and self-direction.”

    Dr Ravitch  offers this: I have only one disagreement with Mathis’ keen analysis: “Given the pervasive misuse of standardized tests, our nation would benefit by having a moratorium on standardized testing of three to five years, during which time we might figure out how and when to use them, how to educate without them, and why test scores not the purpose of going to school.

  7. SomeDAM Poet says:

    “Gov. Andrew Cuomo has seemingly shelved his proposal that test scores account for 50 percent of teacher evaluations; the opt-out rebellion put that bad idea on ice. Now, the state Assembly is even considering a bill that would end test-based teacher evaluations altogether.”

    This makes it sound like Cuomo has seen the light.

    Far more likely that Cuomo has seen the Cynthia.

    While the opt out movement certainly set the stage, i’d say the sudden interest by Cuomo and the state Assembly in “revisiting” teacher evals is mainly due to the recent statements of Cynthia Nixon, who has exposed Cuomo’s soft underbelly (I appologize if i grossed anyone out)

    But until the relevant law is changed, I think it would be a big mistake for teachers to trust anything Cuomo says.

  8. Joe says:

    Finland: no homework, no high stakes standardized testing, lots of recess, the school day and year are shorter than in the US, all the teachers are unionized and Finland gets great results on the international tests. Not to mention universal health care, tuition free university education, family leave and 5 weeks minimum mandated annual leave by law. No war on unions in Finland which has a unionization rate of about 70% or more. The child poverty rate in Finland is in the single digits, all school meals are free to all students, rich or poor.
    What is the libertarian response to the Finnish model: SOCIALISM, SOCIALISM, COMMIE, COMMIE COMMIE!!

    • SomeDAM Poet says:

      “No war on unions in Finland”

      No war on anything or anyone else either.

      I suspect the latter is the most substantive difference between the US and Finland.

      The US is eternally at war on every thing and every one — not least of all, war on ourselves: war on drug addicts, war on the poor, war on the middle class, war on teachers, war on immigrants…

      Maybe I am just too stupid to see the obvious, but how can we win a war on ourselves?

    • Gruff says:

      Google where the Finns get their post-WWII education system from. You’ll be surprised. Or not.

      • dianeravitch says:

        The Finns changed their system in the late 1960s, then early 1990s. Is that post war? Which war?

      • Gruff says:

        Diane, I meant immediately after WWII. Not 1960s, but if I remember correctly in the early 1950s. Pasi Salberg has it in his book: from which country the Finnish primary/secondary/upper-secondary education system was modeled, and which party was the driving force. Their system has changed since then a couple of times, but the core structure remains in place.

      • dianeravitch says:

        The big changes in Finland occurred long after WW2

      • GregB says:

        Gruff went into the barrel and dug out the biggest, reddest herring he could grab. And not one of those Finnish herrings with beets.

  9. Mamie Krupczak Allegretti says:

    “…but how can we win a war on ourselves?”

    HA! That’s the question every individual has to answer for him/herself!

  10. Janine says:

    Finally, someone recognizes this boycott by parents is neither irresponsible or out of line. We are the protectors of our children and public education. We are the heroes in this. Now if the remaining 80% of NY parents either KNEW they had the right or saw their role in this light, we’d crash the system. So many takeaways from this, and it should be shared far and wide. I remain, #OptOut is the best action to end the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests.

  11. Gruff says:

    “Doing so would be a step toward rejecting the insidious idea that education should be evermore standardized.” — Standardized testing has more with data mining than with standardized curricula. Conflating these two issues is either a mistake or propaganda.
    “It would bring more local control of schools.” — I would not bet on this. Instead of getting rid of tests altogether the districts will likely contract some local software shops, who will write similar, albeit less elaborate and probably more error-prone, computer-based tests, and the big wigs will split the kickback.

  12. Laura H. Chapman says:

    Alert to a thought experiment about testing. How about responding to the testing issue as the NRA does when reasonable constraints on guns are called for?

    NRA’s solution: We need more guns.

    The testing industry is responding in about the same way. It is pushing so-called personalized learning with adaptive testing on computers. That is the testing industry’s solution to “too many tests.” You just put the entire multi-grade “competency-based” curriculum into a software system, with pre-determined tasks, task-specific proofs of competency, with badges awarded for competencies. You can gather data non-stop and use algorithms to determine what students have not yet mastered and what they need to learn.

    In other words, more testing is the remedy for what’s wrong with schools.

    The logic of the NRA is not different from the logic of test-mongers and everyone who thinks that data-driven instruction is a panacea. For two decades, billionaires have sent money to “voice groups” who will claim that standardized tests and scores on these tests are the only “objective” way to hold schools accountable for the performance of all students and also for closing the achievement gap. In many states there is no concern for the opportunity gap, meaning resources for supporting our students and their teachers well…not wasting money, time, and effort for tests that inevitably declare winners and losers.

  13. ParentNY says:

    We need to watch carefully how the legistlation is worded. Law makers are talking alternative assessments to use as part of teacher evaluations.

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