Parents Wage Misguided War Against Standardized Testing

Dissatisfied with standardized testing in schools, some parents are taking their kids out of the game. But this does a disservice to everybody else.

CNN profiles Michele Gray, who used a religious exemption to get her kids out of the annual tests mandated in her state of Pennsylvania by No Child Left Behind. But it wasn't actually religion that motivated her — rather, she says, "The more I look at standardized tests, the more I realize that we have, as parents, been kind of sold a bill of goods." She got some of her inspiration from Timothy Slekar, who complained in a Huffington Post piece about his son's test-centered schooling:

He sits in social studies and science classes that have been shortened to allow more time for reading and math instruction. He hasn't been given the opportunity to engage real children's literature. His reading teacher is clueless about his interests. Five months of drudgery. How much can he take before just the thought of going to school immobilizes him? There is real damage being done. Something has to happen before my son loses all curiosity.

Some of the lesson's Slekar's son learned as part of his "drudgery" — like finding the main idea of a paragraph and dividing fractions — don't sound so bad. And not everybody's ready to jump on the anti-test bandwagon. Writing in the Daily Beast, Amy Chua (of "Tiger Mother" fame) explains how preparing for the SAT taught her the value of practice. She even challenges the idea that testing kills creativity, arguing that "being able to scramble under pressure and think when caught off guard is part of what the SAT is testing for — and that's a good thing."

Standardized testing is rarely fun — and it could almost certainly be improved — but it's not nearly as antithetical to real, deep learning as its detractors suggest. Learning how to study will serve kids well throughout life — and while stimulating curiosity is important, most adults are probably glad our curiosity was supplemented by requirements from time to time. I, for instance, am lucky I no longer use the form of mathematics I "invented" at the age of 5 — I'm not sure the IRS would appreciate a series of random numbers drawn in boxes (then again, maybe that's exactly what they'd appreciate, but I digress).

Then there's the issue of who's pulling their kids out of testing. Gray, Slekar and their ilk are parents who have enough time, education, and English proficiency to monitor their children's education closely. This doesn't guarantee that their kids will excel, but it does make them less likely to suffer from the serious difficulties with basic skills that standardized testing is supposed to address. Testing doesn't cure those problems — and as Diane Ravitch eloquently points out in Newsweek, No Child Left Behind's tying of test scores to "firing staff, giving bonuses, and closing schools" causes a lot of problems. At the same time, pulling your kid out of testing to save his curiosity feels a little tone-deaf when many children are struggling with reading and addition. If the protests of more privileged parents lead schools to a more productive approach to teaching and testing, then perhaps they will have been worthwhile. But they also run the risk of deepening the divide between haves and have-nots that continues to plague public education — and pretty much every other aspect of society. Any attempt to scuttle standardized testing needs to acknowledge that even if the tests are problematic, the deficits they attempt to address are real — and any alternative approach needs to face these deficits, not just walk away from them.

Mother Hopes Others Will Opt Out Of Standardized Testing [CNN]
The Tiger Mom's SAT Surprise [Daily Beast]
Rejecting Standardized Testing With The Bartleby Project [Huffington Post]

Image via Mike Flippo/Shutterstock.com