There’s a Demon Behind the Test Scores

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, June 7, 2006.

As a parent of children in the public schools, I’m following the debates about standardized tests across the country and in Washington. Recent scores show that math and reading skills are improving, but science scores are declining. There are rumors of cheating on standardized tests in Texas, scores being skewed by the exclusion of students across the country, and still a gap between white and minority scores here in Washington. But we’ve also heard people such as Bill Gates lament the standing of U.S. students in math and science compared with students in other countries. It’s hard to know what to make of all the reports and opinions, and it’s downright frightening for a parent who’s just trying to do right by a child.

When teaching composition at community colleges 15 years ago, I was appalled by the numbers of students graduating high school who placed into remedial writing classes – basic sentences, paragraphs, punctuation. Sure, I taught more of these classes in Mississippi and South Texas than in my native Ohio, but a recent trip to South Puget Sound Community College and a gander at the course catalog there shows there’s still need for remediation.

When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, the “new idea” was called the Exit Exam – a 5-part essay students had to produce to claim the credits from their mandatory writing classes. Our business then was to make sure students could pass that standardized test. That was in 1985. Now, the business of preparing students for standardized tests has been pushed down to elementary and even kindergarten teachers, whose mission is to help 5-year-olds “set goals.”

My concern back in graduate school was that we were teaching to the test rather than focusing on skills students would need in the real world. On the other hand, my teaching colleague in South Texas tells me that the reforms there improved the performance of students she sees now at the community college. And my daughter’s teacher says that tests like the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do give teachers purpose in what they teach.

The question now is, does that purpose make better students of life or just better test scores? Every teacher can tell you there are good students who don’t test well. And there are students who get by the tests but can’t put their skills to use in the real world. In other words, one size never fits all.

The same is true in comparing scores from the U.S. with those of other countries. Yes, students in other countries outperform ours, but there’s a demon behind those scores. I lived for 2 years in Japan, one of those countries that worry Mr. Gates. The education system there relies heavily on test-taking, and a child’s path in life is set in stone as early as first grade. Faced by the pressure, some children refuse to go to school. Many get through it, and the extra cram sessions after the regular school day, only to develop ulcers by the time they reach college. They sacrifice their childhood to a test score. They become addicted to anxiety. If the U.S. takes the same approach of testing, testing, testing, our scores might eventually look as good as theirs, but the damage to our children might be as great.

Funny, though. The “new idea” about education in Japan is to cut back on the pressure, with changes like getting rid of mandatory school on Saturdays. The Education Ministry is worried that, with all the pressure, students aren’t given time to develop the creativity found in kids from other countries – like the United States.