"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Corrupt, Inefficient, and Oppressive Testing

From Mark Teeter, writing in the Moscow Times:
Using the Freedom of Information Act, test resisters this fall secured a copy of the chilling final page of a recent ETS exam:

Sect. IV. Reading Comprehension and Indoctrination.

Allotted time: 5 minutes.

It has been pointed out by certain biased observers that the confederation of states and principalities in early modern Europe commonly referred to as the Holy Roman Empire was in fact neither holy, Roman nor an empire -- and that a present-day U.S. educational testing institution, whose integrity, efficiency and patriotism are beyond question, allegedly offers a "historical parallel" or "analogy" to this phenomenon, since it does no educating at all, conducts no meaningful testing and performs no service.

1. People who make such unfounded and libelous assertions are probably:

a) terrorists;

b) never going to see their children score more than 350 on the verbal portion of this test;

c) likely to encounter unexpected problems with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service during Jeb Bush's first term as president;

d) all of the above.

Just kidding, of course. But the problems with standardized testing are all too real. Even granting that such testing was instituted with the best of intentions and equal-opportunity hopes, the fact is that the importance society invests in the results can make the tests an end in themselves. This is not good.

A test-beating industry grows up around the agency. States begin to pass truth-in-testing laws to make the agency's cryptic methodologies and imperfect scoring more transparent. And the agency itself becomes increasingly defensive about its ubiquity and influence on national life.

Nobody's very happy about the whole setup, but despite irregular spurts of remedial tinkering, no one can offer a significantly better way to do the large-scale sheep-from-goating that the education industry requires. Stalemate.

Most discouraging of all, perhaps, is that instead of identifying a student's academic strengths, weaknesses and potential, standardized tests very often serve as a reliable indicator of exactly one thing -- how well students take standardized tests. And this skill becomes more useful, of course, in a society which increasingly measures achievement and success by means of ... more standardized tests.

So my evaluation of this issue for my Russian colleagues is a resounding maybe. Standardized testing may prove a good thing here in the short term, at least as a change of pace. But beware of the future.

And what's the rush to get rid of the present system, anyway, when no one's even tried to bribe me yet?

Mark H. Teeter teaches Russian-U.S. relations and English in Moscow.

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