Standardized testing is based on a number of assumptions, including that knowledge can be broken down into identifiable bits of absolute, unchanging information—and that education is mastery of such bits. This is nonsense, of course, and has been understood to be nonsense for eons. As Paulo Freire writes, it is an ‘imprisoning of reality,’ pretending that reality is somehow a static ‘thing’:
The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a “circle of certainty” within which he also imprisons reality. On the contrary, the more radical he is, the more fully he enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he can better transform it. He is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. He is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. He does not consider himself the proprietor of history or of men, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he does commit himself, within history, to fight at their side. (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 23-24)
It shouldn’t have to be the ‘radical.’ It should be all teachers who do this. But we do not allow it. Instead, we instill fear in our teachers—fear of evaluation based on factors they cannot control… the factors of the standardized test. Scared of losing their jobs, they end up doing as much as possible for their students, ignoring that education really comes when students do for themselves. They help create passive citizens, rather than involved ones. They promote an inability to grapple with problems through always having been provide ‘answers’ that students need only memorize, not experience or find.
The tests, and the fear they engender in teachers, also promote a generalized attitude that the future is controlled by factors that can be tested. And, again, that education is limited to information, not problem-solving. As B. F. Skinner writes in The Technology of Teaching, however, this omits at least one major part of education, learning to behave in an ethical fashion:
The ethical problems to be met by an individual cannot of course all be foreseen, and the future may need to teach a kind of ethical problem solving which permits the individual to arrive at his own precepts as occasion demands. This is sometimes done by teaching second-order precepts or ethical heuristics. Teaching the student about himself as a behaving organism is important. Precepts useful in self-management have at times been an explicit part of educational policy. They are now usually left to the family and to religious and governmental agencies, especially when they deal with punishing consequences arising from these sources. (193)
Much of this should also be in the schools. None of this lends itself to effective evaluation through testing, standardized or otherwise.
Freire and Skinner were writing over forty years ago. Why is it that, today, we seem to have learned so little? Have our own educations been so bad that we have devolved to the point where we see education as nothing more than the gaining of narrow sets of skills?
Over and over again, those of us with real experience in education, with real backgrounds in the development of our schools and colleges, with real command of the thoughts on education put forward in the past, put forward argument after argument against overly strong reliance on standardized testing. Yet the testing juggernaut rolls on and on.
Will it ever come to a halt?
I don’t know. Though, today, the chorus of frustration with standardized testing is growing, the forces arrayed behind it, which see testing as profit, may still win out.
After all, it is money, today, that has the ear of government. Not people.