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Measuring What Matters Least
Review by Jonathan Pollard

In his book The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools (2000), Alfie Kohn - one of the nation's most outspoken educational critics - concisely explains the inherent harms of a test-driven curriculum.  Additionally, he suggests ways in which teachers, parents, and students can successfully fight against both the ignorant politicians who parade their notions of accountability for media sound-bites, and the wave of test-obsession that our schools have embraced with something akin to religious fervor.

Many years ago, tests were administered mostly to decide placement of students in their classes, or to ascertain which students needed additional help.  Today, test scores are quoted by newspapers; they are used as the primary criteria for judging the success or failure of students, teachers, and school.  Furthermore, they are used by public officials to impose their will upon the educational system.  From an international perspective, our situation must seem entirely unusual.  Few countries administer exams to children so young, or with such a frequency as we do.  Our children are tested to an extent that is unmatched in the history of our society.  There is no more discussion of learning or of new educational methods.  Kohn states that the educational discourse in our nation has been limited to the following statement: "Test scores are too low.  Make them go up."

Over the past few decades, testing has increasingly become a decidedly political issue.  Testing allows politicians to display their concern for the school system.  Test scores offer a simple means of gratification.  Demanding increased test scores fits nicely with political buzzwords such as 'accountability' and 'tougher standards.'  Some people might argue that such accountability is necessary and that we need an objective means of measuring student's achievements.  But do standardized tests truly provide an objective measure of achievement?  If not, then what do they measure?  Kohn argues that they do not, making the following points:

    First and foremost, we must ask ourselves if we are truly measuring something that is important.  Are we measuring intelligence and practical ability, or are we simply measuring test-taking ability?

    Though standardized testing may seem to be something of a scientific nature, they are nothing at all similar to, for example, the process of measuring the size and weight of an object.  Though they are objective, in the sense that they are sometimes scored by machines, they are decidedly subjective, in that they are created by human beings.  People write the questions, which may be confusing, biased, or even stupid.  Furthermore, people decided which questions to include, and which ones to exclude.

    Many proponents of standardized testing argue that it is not 'realistic' to think that we could eliminate such exams.  People who are worried about reality and the 'real-world' ought to realize that artificial exercises such as standardized tests are unrealistic, and do nothing whatsoever toward preparing students for life outside of the classroom. 

    Test results don't necessarily indicate achievement, but rather, tend to be much more accurate indicators of the size of a student's house or the income of the student's parents.  Research has indicated that the amount of poverty found in a community, and other factors that have absolutely nothing to do with what happens in the classroom, account for the great majority of differences in test scores from one area to another. 

    Rather than providing the opportunity for students to demonstrate a higher level of reasoning ability, or carry out any form of extended analysis, standardized tests stress a more superficial level of reasoning, and are most typically extensive exercises in short term memory.