Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

Some thoughts about school standardized testing

Cartoon of car with a bumper sticker that reads "My child is a great test taker"

Clay Bennett cartoon from the Chattanooga Times Free Press

With school starting up for the year,  everywhere I turn somebody is talking about standardized testing in schools. Oak Ridge schools are making TCAP test scores count for a fraction of kids’ grades (not the school board’s idea — it’s a state mandate!), Tennessee is requesting a waiver from the No Child Left Behind requirements, and Clay Bennett’s editorial cartoon from the Chattanooga paper reminds us that testing often seems to be what today’s schools are all about. Outsiders and residents both evaluate a community on its kids’ test scores, and I have no doubt that test scores are increasingly affecting kids’ sense of self-worth. I was pleased to read that the State of New York is working to improve its standardized tests by eliminating “gotcha”-type multiple-choice questions and requiring use of a readable font. I hope that other states (like Tennessee) follow suit. As a kid, I was a “great test taker” who was good at those “gotcha” questions, but as an adult I’ve learned that multiple-choice tests can be a minefield for many  students who are well-prepared — particularly those with dyslexia or similar challenges. Making tests more straightforward is one small step toward reducing their tail-wagging-the-dog dominance of our school systems.



  1. Isn’t Clay Bennett a keeper?

    Having taught in an Anderson County middle school for several years (fortunately not as a classroom teacher), I saw what standardized testing does to teachers and students. It hobbles them. Theyhave to focus on the TEST, which eliminates time for in-depth discussions and limits time available for questions. Tests stress everyone. And the “product” (a revolting way to describe students) is remarkably docile, incurious, and passive. Why else do they not recognize their own self interest? Why else is labor so repressed in Tennessee? Education (derivation: e ducere — to lead out) that develops critical thinking and analysis would turn out workers who would not stand for “right-to-work” laws.

    That said, I have nothing but praise and respect for teachers. Within the debilitating constraints imposed on them, they do amazing things. Too many of their students are malnourished, abused or otherwise stressed, and/or have illiterate parents. Too many of those parents don’t value education, since they have limited experience of it and no experience of its benefits.

    Teachers work tirelessly, often on their own time and at their own expense, to give all their students tools they need to survive in the world they will face upon leaving school. Fortunately, most of the kids are lovable, and respond to attention. With a more humane educational system, one that LEADS OUT native abilities rather than attempting to “fill empty vessels,” our schools could turn out creative citizens.

    Of course, creative, innovative citizens may not be as accommodating as trained consumers. But we’d have a far better shot at democracy … oh, we don’t really want that, do we?

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    Not being a teacher, I guess I’ve generally accepted the idea that standardized testing exists because of managers’ desire for measures of the outputs of education — and of course it’s hard to measure things like critical thinking and creativity, so testing emphasizes less complex forms of learning. I hope that your darker theories about the motives for testing are overly pessimistic, but I fear you may be onto something.

    Regardless, teaching must be more of a calling than a job, or else people wouldn’t do it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook