Educational Testing

Guest Column

It is said that the intent of the national government is to test every child in school every year. Test them for what? I have always assumed that schooling, public and private, was intended to educate individuals so they can function as positive and informed citizens. There is not now nor has there ever been a complete agreement or understanding of what that means. As a result, the United States completely decentralized education of children when the government was formed. Neither the national nor the state governments were given a role. Both, however, have bought their way in over the years, and you have to pay the piper.

With the money state and national governments send to every school district come laws and rules on how the money must be spent. As with many things, these rules start out gently and become more strict and controlling as the schools and local patrons become habituated to the money. The reality is that public education is expensive and is becoming more so. It is clear that citizens of many school districts do not want to pay the amount of taxes required for education. If education becomes private, we automatically begin to form a class society where children of the wealthy get the best education. Check out the United Kingdom during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries.

Is the purpose of schooling to broadly educate or to do job training? The German system of education which is rigorous tends toward training and technical skills. This approach is in line with what the No Child Left Behind law is attempting to do. As a result the testing is on skills and narrow factual material. When one creates a standardized test there has to be specific goals established to test for, and the test must be validated through a process which assures that the test accurately evaluates the knowledge of the material. I have neither heard of nor seen evidence that the tests meet the standards, nor that there is agreement on what should be taught, yet students and teachers are condemned for not doing well on the tests. This situation has driven teachers to teach the tests and administrators to find ways to get the students better scores.

The No Child Left Behind law has not been liked, approved of, or successful in improving students educational levels, but it has improved their test taking skills. Thus, the government wishes to up the requirements by standardizing the curriculum. Common Core is intended to create one curriculum for the entire country. This takes us back to the question of what constitutes an education. Just because a student can recite the constitution does not mean he/she knows what it means. I have seen little in the way of public discussion on how courses will be defined.

It is essential that American citizens have a broad education so they have the ability to intelligently participate in all aspects of political and cultural life. While I have no evidence for this, I suspect that corporate lobbyists are quietly pushing for a narrow and intense education which will provide them with reliable workers who have the skills to work in modern industry thus shifting schooling from education to training.  There is no doubt in my mind that the public school curriculum must address the needs of the nation and its employers as part of their purpose. The technical aspects of society are changing rapidly and the young must be prepared to understand and use these aspects as well as develop new ones, but not at the expense of the non-technical.

Thomas Jefferson was a liberally educated man, but he believed that if a person could not understand and use Euclidian math, he was not fit for public service. Perhaps elected officials should be tested every year to see if they are fit to serve, especially those who wish to test every student every year. I would recommend also that the elected officials be tested in social science, philosophy and the arts. We really don’t want governed by people who are ignorant or incapable.