Home _ Miscellaneous Tools and Topics Square Peg, Round Hole: The Puzzling Pasteurization of Public Schools in America

Square Peg, Round Hole: The Puzzling Pasteurization of Public Schools in America



Standardized Testing Runs Contrary to the Educational Goal of Differentiation (and Much More)

When you go to a government school, you expect a great education. But, what you typically get is a mix of good and bad. And, with standardized testing, the bad can outweigh the good. That’s because standardized testing doesn’t take into account the individual learning habits and styles of students.

What Are Standards?

When you think of a standard, what do you normally think of? You probably think of something like a benchmark or a minimum level of attainment. People set standards every day for how they will interact with people, how they will negotiate their work, and ethical decisions.

However, in education, “standards” has become a dirty word. In education, however, standards are applied in a manner that almost seems like we are creating a minimum threshold of knowledge. Anyone who does not cross that threshold isn’t educated.

And, teachers are held to educational standards that are supposed to dictate, or at least direct or suggest, the manner in which they educate their students. Standards implies stability and predictability. It implies a sense of uniformity and quality control.

Who Sets The Standards?

In the U.S., the Department of Education is fundamental in establishing a basis for standardized education. Local schools, with an active administration, then set standards in terms of curricula and testing.

These standards assume a universal minimum threshold for knowledge that every child must meet. How children learn is not the focus. That they learn, is. And, more specifically, what they learn. It is assumed that facts are the primary end-goal of education. And that this will result in a successful educational experience.

Individuals Can’t Be Judged By Universal Standards, Applied Rigidly, Without Context

One of the main problems with standardized education, and if you learn about the education system in the USA, you’ll find that standards are often implemented in such a way so as to force teachers to teach to the “middle.”

In other words, teachers must teach lessons to average students of average ability. The result is that those who are considered “below average” and those considered “above average” are either struggling to keep up or are bored, respectively.

Each individual student’s potential for learning is unlimited (assuming the student has a normally-functioning brain), but the method by which a child learns can differ dramatically from individual to individual.

On some level, you probably know this. Some people learn better by reading than by watching videos. Others need to experience a situation to get the most out of it. Still others learn best when a combination and variety of stimuli are presented.

But, if the standard method of education is mostly or entirely focused on one method – the lecture method, for example, or reading, then some students will naturally fall behind.

Another way standardization hurts students is when standards are applied in a way that assumes a minimum level of knowledge is required at a certain age. Children are not robots or computers. Prescribing that a child understand trigonometry by age 10 does not mean the child has achieved anything of significance other than a particular score on an exam.

A child’s interests may not be in mathematics. They may be in art or science or literature. If the focus is to “level the playing field” for all subjects, then all subjects suffer in the right context. So for example, a student whose passion is literature will not get enough of it in school. He or she will get some literature, more math than is necessary or required for her, and will not get the education she needs in order to be happy and to grow as an individual.

The Focus Is On Tests, Not Education and Learning

When education is standardized, students are asked to prove their knowledge. The only way to do this is to administer examinations. Now, exams aren’t inherently bad. They can serve a very good purpose. Testing knowledge is one of the best ways to validate that one knows what one knows and can recall it in a situation where it might be needed.

Examinations also demonstrate the ability to apply knowledge.

When a proper test is given, application is the focus of the exam. Proving that the student can apply the knowledge learned means that the educational process was successful. Not all exams prove application, however. Most tests in standardized settings are focused on taking the test itself, rather than applying knowledge learned in class.

In this sense, the test becomes something that’s taken for its own sake. A test to prove one is capable of doing well on a test.

This undermines the very purpose of education: to help students understand and apply the knowledge they’ve learned to achieve their goals in life.

So what can we do about this challenge? Check out last week's article, To Grade or not to Grade? Exploring the Great Grading Controversy” to explore how some schools are changing grading practices and moving towards education that is built around learning, not testing. – K. Walsh


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