5 Reasons standardized testing won’t slow down

This is a guest post by Anya Kamenetz, pictured above with her daughter. Kamenetz leads education coverage at NPR, and her new book is The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be.

Between kindergarten and 12th grade, students in the US on average take 113 standardized tests. There is a huge movement among parents to protect their kids from this onslaught of tests. And the teachers generally can’t stand teaching to the tests, or administering the tests. Which makes you wonder, why is the testing culture so entrenched in our schools—even among school reform leaders?

To understand our national obsession with tests, you should follow the money.

1. Companies that publish the tests make tons of money.
The test industry is a relatively static, highly concentrated, and not very competitive. CTB McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, and Pearson dominate the industry, and most of them have been in the business for decades. They make up what Robert Scott, former education commissioner of Texas, calls the “assessment and accountability regime…a military-industrial complex.”

In 2012 a report by the Brookings Institution found $669 million in direct annual spending on assessments in 45 states, or $27 per student. When you add administrative costs involved in tests, the total spent on testing rises to $1100 per student.

2. The test prep industry is lucrative.
But the money parents spend on preparing kids for tests dwarfs what schools are spending: $13.1 billion dollars this year (including test preparation, tutoring, and counseling). The global private tutoring market was estimated to pass a whopping $78.2 billion. That total includes programs that accept kids as young as 18 months old for pre-academic and after-school drilling and prepping.

The profit margins on No Child Left Behind tests are as low as 3%, but practice tests and workbooks sold to schools and prep outfits are more cheaply produced and claim as high as a 21% profit margin.

3. The people who determine how we reform education are the people who can fund education reform.
The top donors to public schools are the Gates family, the Broad family, and the Walton family. These are the billionaires that run public school reform. Bill and Melina Gates are obsessed with metrics-based social change, so they push very hard for testing.

(Disclosure, and for example: the Gates Foundation funded me to write an ebook in 2011; it funded the nonprofit education news service where I had a blog in 2013; it funds education coverage among other areas at NPR, where I now work.)

The personal interests and convictions of the Gates family drive their foundation’s agenda. And the Gate’s emphasis on data and metrics has permeated the entire philanthropic world.

In the international programs, they track metrics like how many wells dug and how many doses of malarial medication administered. In the domestic education program the metrics of choice have been test scores.

President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, recruited both his chief of staff and assistant deputy secretary from the Gates Foundation. The administration waived ethics rules so that these government staff members could consult freely with their former colleagues at the Gates Foundation.

Gates funded the initial development of the Common Core State Standards through the nonprofit Achieve Inc. Gates also supported charter schools, and in 2009 pledged $335 million to raise student achievement— measured through test scores—and promote teacher evaluation systems tied to student performance—measured through test scores.

4. The Common Core is what makes Ed Tech lucrative.
Before the Common Core, teaching was more fragmented, customized to the teacher and the students in a given school. Now everything is standardized, and Gates points out that standardized learning makes it easier for education startups to grow very big very fast:

“Because of the Common Core, developers no longer have to cater to dozens or even hundreds of varying standards,” he told the crowd. “Instead, they can focus on creating the best applications that align with the core.”

This idea about the power of standards is borrowed from the web. Online, interoperability standards allow developers to create pages and applications that are viewable and usable by anyone with any browser or mobile operating system.

“When you add textbooks, supplements, and assessments together, you’re talking about a $9 billion market that’s wide open for innovation,” Gates said.

5. School reform in the US attracts business people. Not educators.
Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp, cast an acquisitive eye on every public dollar spent on education when he announced the beginning of his education technology brand Amplify. At this point, Amplify produces hardware and software for the K-12 market, but Murdoch expects to expand his holdings.

“When it comes to K- 12 education,” he wrote, “we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”

While we subject our offspring to endless measurement, what is really being tested? It’s our values as parents—the kind of kids we want to raise and the kind of society we want to have. The testing obsession is damaging our children. But our society is locked into a testing arms race.

The parents who have the most time, energy, and resources are afraid to stop playing the testing game for fear their children will be left behind. The schools that serve the children with the fewest resources are even more determined to push them toward standardized test performances that can somehow make up for everything else they lack.

Some parents will decide not to subject their kids to any more tests. Some will find ways to make the testing experience better. Some, I hope, will be inspired to work toward a collective solution. Whatever you choose, as parents we can—we must—transform our families’ relationships to these tests.

How do we keep our own parental anxieties in check to build corresponding resilience and calm in our children?

How do we let our children be who they are while also motivating them to be the best they can be?

How do we build a world where every child is challenged to achieve her own personal best?

The answer is not multiple choice.



27 replies
  1. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    An ounce of sulfur is pretty much an ounce of sulfur. It you have a factory that produces packages each containing an ounce of sulfur, then tests of the purity, volume, etc of those packages are what you want, no doubt. This is the scientific, the factory, the Gates, approach to education. And I will give Bill Gates credit for taking the model seriously, and driving it forward efficiently to the crisis that is inevitable when this model is applied to education.

    The difficulty comes from the fact that there is no such thing as an abstract child. There is no average child. Every “product” of this type ever produced by a society is a unique thing, a person. And it is not just an objective thing, it is a subjective thing. To that extent, a person is invisible and barely existent to the eyes of science; nothing more than a data point.

    Tests, by their nature are quantitative, but what matters most in education is qualitative.

    Homeschooling is the radical solution. Parents are equipped to cultivate qualitative measures, things like grit, self-discipline, creativity, openness, self-understanding, and so many more of the the things that fall through the cracks in schooling.

    But only 1 in 5 families in the US consists of a married couple with one parent at home. Discounting families where the stay-at-home parent is disabled or in school or looking for work, maybe 1 in 10 remain. About a third of those families homeschool, but even if they all did, that would still only account for 10 percent of our society.

    For the other 90 percent, I see only two imperfect solutions. I prefer to focus on the fact that they are solutions, rather than the fact that they are imperfect.

    1.) slowly push society in a direction that affords more parental time for parenting. Ever increasing parenting must supplement the role of schools. Schools can school kids, but they can only school them; they cannot parent them. They never could, they will never be able to. Parenting children is the responsibility of parents. We have, as a society, chosen priorities other than the optimal development of our children, our own next generation, and our society is paying, and will continue to pay, the price for that.

    We need to do whatever it takes to get the priorities of our society to (continue to) shift in this direction of allowing and encouraging more effective parenting.

    2.) make the schooling that does happen more oriented toward the development of qualitative goals. It needs to be less scientific, more holistic, less standardized, and more individualized. It needs to transition from an industrial age to the information age, or maybe to a different age we don’t have a name for yet. Teachers, fortunately, are humans. They have the full repertoire of talents that can be applied to the development of both qualitative goals and quantitative ones. We need to push for more of that range of talents to be put to use. As I have said before, I am convinced teachers are ready to help us push.

    The word “educate” comes from the Latin “educere,” which means to lead out (from immaturity into maturity) but it also means to draw forth. And it is the drawing forth from children the unique gifts they have to give something of value to their society in exchange for all they receive from it, while simultaneously living fulfilling personal lives as whole individuals, that the educational system needs to be pushed toward. This is in stark contrast to the prevailing model, where children are packages to be filled with a certain quantity of a certain set of ingredients. We have a long way to go.

    It’s difficult because, as you point out, Anya, in our society commercial interests tend to win out. All I can say is that Theodore Roosevelt was right when he observed that nothing worthwhile is easy.

    It might even be impossible, but to paraphrase Gimli, “then, what are we waiting for?”

  2. marta
    marta says:

    113 standardized tests. Wow!

    In my country, as of the last five or so years, kids have 6 standardized tests until 9th grade. High school here is from 10th til 12th, and the amount of tests depends on the subjects kids choose to study, but on average they will have to take 5-6 before they enter university. So, 12 total.

    Huge difference, that may account for the criticism, call for school reform and negativity towards the school system I find in so many US homeschooling blogs…

    School is far from perfect in my country but, then again, it is not such a big deal… I guess kids have more free time here than in the US, and less pressure (except the high school years, in which you have to earn a certain grade average + the tests to get into university).

  3. Jeff T.
    Jeff T. says:

    The article is good and I agree with everything, but criticizing standardized testing is sort of like criticizing the dry mouth that comes with cancer. I’d prefer to do away with schooling altogether and let testing be a feature that dies with it.

  4. Amy A
    Amy A says:

    Parents need access to what is in these “tests.”
    (I thought they have to be called “assessments” because they are doing more than checking /testing math and grammar knowledge…)

    “We’ve been absolutely staggered by realizing that the computer has the capability to act as if it were ten of the top psychologists working with one student. You’ve seen the tip of the iceberg. Won’t it be wonderful when the child in the smallest country in the most distant area or in the most confused urban setting can have the equivalent of the finest school in the world on that terminal and no one can get between that child and that curriculum? We have great moments coming in the history of education.”

    – Duston Heuston
    Utah’s World Institute for Computer Assisted Teaching

    Bill Gates being looked up to as a philanthropist is a great decoy for what he is really up to.

    Wake up, America.

  5. Kierstin
    Kierstin says:

    I feel like when people defend public schooling, they think that they’re defending this governmental institution that’s based on the latest and best child development techniques…Listening to teachers who have just gotten out of school makes education seem so practical and straight forward. It is only once teachers experience daily how children really learn that they jump ship as fast as they can, realizing what a hopeless endeavor public schooling is. Public education policy is sold to the highest bidder and is rarely aligned with reality.

  6. MBL
    MBL says:

    Really great article! Thanks so much for this.

    I truly understand that “The parents who have the most time, energy, and resources are afraid to stop playing the testing game for fear their children will be left behind.” is true for the most part. However, I think that sector is where the greatest growth in homeschooling and unschooling can be found.

    For me, looking at testing data is like porn. I lived for standardized test results as a kid. It takes everything I have to stifle my desire to test the stuffing out of my daughter and to take the tests she has taken with a grain of salt.

    Her nature is to not give a fig about those things and when she realizes that the more questions she answers correctly, the more she will be given, well…
    I have tried to convey to her that tests are NOT the end all be all, but do please give them a good try.
    If she likes the tester she will have a blast and keep going. If she doesn’t, all bets are off.

    I think at the higher grade levels parents with resources are invested in great test results, but is that necessarily the case for lower grades? I know there is a movement to opt out of testing. Which, of course, can skew the results if those who are most likely to do well aren’t taking them. Or perhaps it skews them if those most likely to bomb them due to anxiety are staying home. So maybe it evens out.

    I am finding it hard to believe that most students are taking 113 tests. I just read the NPR article that sort of discusses that. The figure comes from a survey of large school districts but it seems that number of tests between students and districts varies quite a bit. It looks like the 11th grade is the most heavily tested year. I think our local elementary tests just once or twice a year–which still sucks, but doesn’t sound as dire as the 113 figure suggests. However, my initial reading was 113 different testing sessions, but I think the two days of testing are probably comprised of 4 or 5 different tests which makes the figure more believable, but still sucky.

    Again, great article! You have pretty much summed up my life with:

    “How do we keep our own parental anxieties in check to build corresponding resilience and calm in our children?

    How do we let our children be who they are while also motivating them to be the best they can be?

    How do we build a world where every child is challenged to achieve her own personal best?”

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Testing data is like porn? You are a strange one mbl.

      I read an article on pbs and those tests were (the 113 number) the *average* of what kids in large urban areas are taking from K-12 grades.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        Are you going to tell her that Fifty Shades of Gray has nothing to do with bubble tests and #2 pencils, or shall I?

  7. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    Oh dear! This gets the cart before the horse. Let’s get poor Dobbin out of the tangle of harness, give him a carrot and set things to rights.

    Let’s get back to basics.

    1. Education is a government program.

    2. Government education started as a war on ignorance; now it is just paychecks for the education blob and the education corporate interests.

    3. When government programs run down, as they always do, elite foundations start to call for reform, as in “Nation at Risk” and No Child Left Behind.

    4. The only thing the ruling class understands is command and control, so they decide that they need “metrics” so that they can see what’s happening in the classroom. So testing gets signed into law.

    5. The testers turn into special interests and become part of the problem.

    6. Parents get riled up and demand reform.

    OK. “How do we build a world…” etc.

    Who’s “we” Kemosabe? Elite liberal journalists? Elite billionaires? Elite “activists”?

    Or do “we” allow parents the basic freedom to raise our children in our own way according to our lights, realizing that the experts and the elite don’t have a clue except their will to power?

    The testing mess is really good news. It means that the education system is getting closer to collapse. And only when it collapses will “we” be able to do something about it.

  8. redrock
    redrock says:

    I have read similar statements previously in quite a few different contexts and I still don’t know what is want by “elite”. Does it include everybody from the Wall Street guy, the physics professor, the lady who lunches, the rocket engineer, the Ivy league graduate, best selling author, the 20 year school teacher, the serial entrepreneur, and the 0.01 income bracket? Is it everybody with a higher education?

    Please note that this is a pretty general question – I have wondered for a while.

  9. redrock
    redrock says:

    sorry – substitute “what is want by “elite”” with ” what is meant by elite”. New computer and spell correcting is not turned off yet.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I have been called elitist for my views on unschooling. People use the word out of context all the time. It is used as a class warfare tactic. meh.

    • Amy A
      Amy A says:

      If you believe there is a global agenda, this could answer your question:

      “The global elite march in three essential columns: Corporate, Political and Academic….

      “In general, the goals for globalism are created by Corporate. Academic then provides studies and white papers that justify Corporate’s goals. Political sells Academic’s arguments to the public and if necessary, changes laws to accommodate and facilitate Corporate in getting what it wants.

      “An important ancillary player in globalism is the media, which we will call Press in this report. Press is necessary to filter Corporate, Academic and Political’s communications to the public. Press is not a fourth column, however, because it’s purpose is merely reflective. However, we will see that Press is dominated by members of Corporate, Political and Academic who sit on the various boards of directors of major Press organizations. ”

      – Patrick M. Wood

  10. Amy A
    Amy A says:

    Take the word “global” out of the quote. I think it describes pretty well who the elite are.

  11. mh
    mh says:

    The photo a accompanying this post is perfect.

    Standardized testing is to education as lazy eye is to …

    [ok, internet, finish the analogy]

  12. Laura Boytz
    Laura Boytz says:

    Before No Child Left Behind, in the 80s and 90s, plenty of teachers and principals in public schools were interested in genuine education reform. “Teaching the whole child” and “authentic assessment” were among the buzz words of the day, and there were efforts underway to increase the ability of adults in schools to really know students (lower class sizes, fewer classes per day in secondary schools, etc), and to emphasize student-centered instruction (writing workshops and reading workshops giving students lots of choice, service learning, portfolio and project based assessments, collaboration among students and teachers in real world settings . . . ) All of these efforts were opposed by those who wanted education to be measured “objectively” rather than “subjectively” — as if human learning is not always subjective. In came the standardized test regime, supported by both the Bush administration and the Obama administration — with an overemphasis on standardized tests being used to determine the fate of schools, students and teachers — and destroy the public’s confidence in public schools so that privatizers could gain support for charter school chains and vouchers, etc. Now we have a new era of segregation and two-tiered education — progressive private education for the rich, standardized test based, oppressive education for the poor. It’s too bad some of the folks in the comments here didn’t fight for the progressive educators in public schools — and progressive education for all students — instead of just pulling their own children out. But there are still teachers and parents — and a few administrators — who are fighting the good fight in the public schools and could use your support.

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