Home > Uncategorized > The “Race to Nowhere”, Where Test Results Measure “Success”, Leads to Ill-Being

The “Race to Nowhere”, Where Test Results Measure “Success”, Leads to Ill-Being

A few weeks ago the NYTimes book review section ran a review by Pedro Noguera of Patricia Abeles’ recent book “Beyond Measure”. Ms. Abeles, whose earlier work in this vein included the movie “Race to Nowhere”, describes the educational pointlessness and ultimate destructiveness of the standardized testing movement. In “Beyond Measure” Ms. Abeles asserts that the current symbols of success in public education— “High grades, high test scores and admission to one of the nation’s elite colleges”— are narrow, harmful, and corrosive to public education at the post-secondary level. One section of Noguera’s review jumped out at me:

…Abeles calls for an end to what she describes as the “application arms race.” She also reminds us that it wasn’t always this way. Not too long ago, those who didn’t gain admission to elite private colleges could be educated at strong, affordable public alternatives that were readily available. 

Noguera imagines that critics will scoff at Abeles’ premises about schooling because they are based on the values of an affluent parent whose children don’t need to be measured in order to ensure they are receiving a high quality education. Her critics will also roll out the comparative international test data and the increase in engineers in Eastern countries as evidence that we need more rigor in our schools and more pressure applied to students. Mr. Noguera, though, sees things differently:

By now, however, those arguments are wearing thin. A growing chorus of Americans is questioning the ever-increasing cost of college and the staggering debts students must take on to finance their education… For the last 30 years, the reformers have held a viselike grip on American education policy. Abeles is giving voice to those who seek a fundamental redirection.

For this reason, “Beyond Measure” will be seen as threatening. The education establishment is losing its ability to dismiss its critics as self-serving defenders of the status quo. The critics are too numerous, too diverse and, increasingly, too fed up with the whole bill of goods they’ve been sold. Abeles sees how the clamor for change in American education is growing and will not be assuaged by new or better slogans.

Abeles book is written from a parental perspective, and does include some evidence that the stress induced by the testing regimen is harmful, citing “...rising rates of depression and anxiety disorders, and excessive use of performance-enhancing drugs” she notes that “…if the trade-off for success is a decline in health, a growing number of people may decide it’s not worth it.”

In today’s NYTimes Ms. Abeles offers an op ed piece that delves more deeply into the medical repercussions of the testing regimen offering clear evidence that “the trade-off for success is a decline in health” and suggesting that the decline in health is NOT limited to the affluent suburban schools but to schools serving children of all economic backgrounds in America. After citing medical studies showing an increase in depression and anxiety that results from seven hour school days, full activity calendars, and mountains of homework, Abeles offers this paragraph to counter her likely critics in the “school reform” movement:

Paradoxically, the pressure cooker is hurting, not helping, our kids’ prospects for success. Many college students struggle with critical thinking, a fact that hasn’t escaped their professors, only 14 percent of whom believe that their students are prepared for college work, according to a 2015 report. Just 29 percent of employers in the same study reported that graduates were equipped to succeed in today’s workplace. Both of those numbers have plummeted since 2004. 

I am certain the 2004 was chosen as a baseline because that is when the impact of NCLB was first felt in schools and when public education became obsessed with test scores, whose rise would presumably lead to graduates who were ready for work or ready for college. But as the survey of colleges and employers show, the test scores are not a proxy for either college or workforce readiness: they only measure a students ability to take tests.

Unfortunately, as noted in this blog on several posts, the passage of ESSA only means more testing. It means that we are likely to have another decade of obsession over test scores, another decade of racing to nowhere, and another decade of ill-being for children in public schools…. unless those who seek a fundamental redirection of schools let our voices be heard in local and state elections.

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