OPINION: Standardized tests provoke students to fail

imageBy John Hankey

Listen to the audio here:

I teach 10th grade at Manual Arts High School and I have a few things to say about test scores.

1. Most importantly, where does good teaching come from? Does it descend from heaven like the Holy Spirit upon the heads of the chosen? Are we born with it? Or does it get taught? This whole discussion is based on blaming the teacher for bad test scores, rather than blaming the students. OK. We blame those responsible for guiding the students to become good test takers. But who teaches the teachers? Why do we not blame those responsible for guiding teachers to become good teachers? The responsibility is primarily that of administrators and schools of education. And there’s not a word about this, that I’ve seen, in any discussion of the topic. How is such glaring oversight of such a fundamental point possible? It’s laughable that the Los Angeles Times holds itself in such high regard, and misses such a fundamental point [see the “Value-Added” database, which rates teachers by their students’ test scores]; and it’s depressing that the school district — whose administrators hold such highly burnished credentials and get paid two and three times what I get — is similarly clueless.

2. The tests are horribly and deliberately flawed — skewed to measure test-taking ability rather than, for example, reading ability. Tenth graders take not only the CST, but the CAHSEE, and four periodic assessments. I always take the test while I’m monitoring, so I have some familiarity. The CST is the worst, putting many of the hardest questions in the first three or four questions. And the test is also jam-packed with questions that have four good answers or four bad answers, out of four possible answers. I often do not know what answer is intended as “correct,” and I’m an exceptionally good test taker. Putting the hardest questions at the beginning is designed to provoke struggling students to give up. And filling the tests with questions, the answer to which is clearly arbitrary and meaningless, is designed to provoke the stiff-necked critical thinkers into rebellion.

My students witness every day the ugly truth that the society they live in holds them in the lowest regard, has the lowest expectations for them, and in fact is poised, waiting for them to screw up so that they can be locked away behind bars. They walk into a building called “Manual Arts” for goodness sake! Our mascot is “the Toiler”, a guy in a paper hat holding a sledge hammer, or a mop, or a bag of burgers. OMG! And where are they to find the motivation to apply themselves to a test that has obviously been carefully designed, and implemented at phenomenal expense, to demean them? Of course the smartest of them rebel.

The test is also much longer than it needs to be to test ability in English. It becomes an endurance test — a measure of students’ ability to knuckle under and perform a meaningless, boring, and ugly job “because I said so.” It does, then, measure the docility of the students more than anything. And of course, students from higher socio-economic backgrounds are more docile. They have every reason to be. Their educational experience has not been 10 years of empty promises and degradation.

It would be possible to design a better test. It should be done. It should contain a brief test to determine reading level. And another to determine math. And it should then leave the kids the hell alone and stop wasting everyone’s time.

3. Because of these deliberate design flaws, and perhaps other features, the CST is an insanely flawed testing instrument. One teacher writing to the Times described how one her honors students went up 40 points, and another went down 50. She asked how the same students in the same classroom could have such wildly varied responses. Ten years ago, I made the same analysis of my students (the Times are so proud of themselves! I did the same comparison they did to see how my students were doing) and saw this wild, inexplicable swing. I was crushed. Until I did the same examination of another teacher’s scores, one who I, and everyone, greatly admired for her intelligence, organization, and commitment. And I observed the same wildly crazy swings among her students. It’s par for the course. And it’s the wrong course.

John Hankey teaches 10th grade at Manual Arts High School.


  1. Shay Olivarria says:

    You make some very good points. Many times formal education is set up to create good workers, not necessarily well educated people. The challenge is this country is that it’s been this way, letting tests define “ability”, that some find it hard to do anything differently.

    I really feel sad for students today. I didn’t have to test every six weeks when I was in school. The teachers were allowed to teach and be create about how to explain things to us. Students were allowed to see things from different perspectives.

    Some of the points you mentioned are reasons why more and more families are choosing to home school. I hope that the administrators, superintendents, etc. that read this article understand what you’re saying and make some changes.

    Shay Olivarria
    Author, 10 Things College Students Need to Know About Money

  2. I partly agree but I believe much of the blame can be put on parents for not pushing their kids hard enough or taking more of an interest in their everyday study habits.

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