[OP-ED] The 2015 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores are out and stoking debate over all the usual questions we have in the U.S. about standardized testing. Why did the NAEP scores fall for the first time since 1990? What’s the role of Common Core influence on the scores? Can we accept Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s explanation that the scores are not cause for alarm? Do the lower scores mean that we need more testing or less?
What’s unusual in all this testing debate is that it’s rarely about education. Instead, it’s more often about:
Politics: You can’t talk about standardized tests without tying them to No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch, and even Louis CK. Testing is about being a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative or libertarian.
Questioning: We demand that the U.S. always be ranked as a world leader in education, but we refuse, for the most part, to do what many other nations to do get that status. We criticize our standardized tests for racial bias, failure to assess or value non-cognitive skills, and for forcing teachers and students to devote too much time to test prep. In many Top-Ten nations ranking, this kind of criticism does not happen. In the top four nations—South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—cramming for national exams is pretty much a way of life, and the content of the tests is not questioned. If students do badly there, they blame themselves.
National pride: We feel that if other industrialized nations use standardized testing, then the U.S. should not. It’s just like solar power or electric cars: all you have to say is “that’s how they do it in Finland/France/Germany” and many Americans will be immediately turned off. We like to go our own way, and don’t want to admit anyone else does anything better than we do. If Japan dropped its standardized testing, more Americans might support it here!
In the end, we see that Americans are deeply conflicted about the idea, purpose, and execution of testing itself, which makes it hard for us to evaluate any test results with an objective eye. As we try to make sense of testing—what we need to compete and what we want for our students—we should always remember that the U.S. is unique in many ways when it comes to education. We are one of the few nations committed to educating our entire population, for free, for 12 years. We are one of the few nations with the goal of offering equal education to all our students. And we are one of the few nations determined to be in the top ten nations for education that has a radically diverse, extremely large, constantly changing population.
According to the 2014 Pearson Learning Curve index of the top ten education ranking of nations, the top five are demographically very homogenous (South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland). The bottom five include three relatively homogenous nations—the Netherlands, Ireland, and Poland (the U.K. and Canada are the other two). All of the top ten are all small nations; Japan has the highest population at 127 million. It’s easier for small and demographically homogenous populations to use standardized tests because they believe that their students all have roughly the same demographic background and therefore same access to opportunity. There’s no question of racial or ethnic bias.
The U.S. is big (318 million at the last census) geographically and population-wise. It is famously not demographically homogenous. We struggle to live up to our goals and principles by delivering high-quality education to everyone for free. Too often we fail. But we always keep trying, and that’s why we criticize and question our standardized tests. That will keep going on until we’re sure they are basically fair because all students have the same chance of doing well on them.
We just need to remember that the tests aren’t really the problem, and we need to keep working on what matters to produce a well-educated public.
For a deeper look into how differences in curricula, textbooks, and teaching practices around the world affect student learning in mathematics and science, go to Looking At Learning… Again, workshop 8, “The International Picture.” Educators, experts, and administrators discuss TIMSS results and point to weaknesses in the U.S. educational system.
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