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Standardized Tests and Smart Fools Redux

July 2, 2017

As noted in a post earlier today, I was captivated by a Scientific American interview with eminent psychologist Robert Sternberg. After reading the article and writing my blog post, I left the following comment on her blog, a comment that was largely derived from my earlier blog post:

Great article! Thanks for sharing. My take:

Dr. Sternberg didn’t say so explicitly, but the kind of tribalism that sets todays ethical standards comes from “cultures” that celebrate “outlaws” and anti-establishment behavior. Voters knew that Donald Trump was a misogynist who cheated on his wife, a ruthless businessman who viewed cheating on his taxes as a shrewd business move, and an anti-intellectual who loved “the uneducated” and despised the “intellectual elites”. The tribal cultures that hold Mr. Trump in high esteem, the tribal evangelical culture, and the tribal gun culture ultimately elected a man who opposed the rule of law and the establishment. And Dr. Sternberg sees this tribalism as a by-product of our test culture that places a premium on teaching individual test-taking skills at the expense of “teaching good values and good ethics and good citizenship”.

I concur with Dr. Sternberg. What gets tested gets taught, and we have ignored testing for the complicated and relatively difficult to measure inter-personal and intra-personal skills that lead to “good values and good ethics and good citizenship”. Instead our schools have placed a premium on the relatively inexpensive and easy to measure analytic skills associated with reading and arithmetic. We haven’t taught the important skills and we are witnessing the by-product when those who do not possess the skills needed to thrive in our new economy band together in tribes with like-minded world views.

In a world that increasingly operates in echo chambers and a world where “choice” may result in children focusing even more on test-taking skills and attending schools with fellow tribal members, it may be difficult to encourage the kind of curriculum Dr. Sternberg espouses… a curriculum that values creative, independent thinking that “defies the crowd and defies the Zeitgeist”. We face an uphill battle in getting back to common ground where all of our citizens agree on what constitutes “good values and good ethics and good citizenship”… and “choice” will ultimately make that uphill battle even steeper!

That comment elicited some additional comments from Diane Ravitch’s readers, including this one from “NYC Public School Parent” who wrote:

This sounds good except….

This mis-use of standardized testing and teaching to the test is a more recent phenomenon. It wasn’t the youngest voters who elected Trump.

Trump’s core support was among voters who are older and whose education was before standardized testing became the measure of all.

I agree with critics of the test-taking culture but is Sternberg talking about that culture from 40 years ago or today?

After reading this and reflecting on it, I wrote the following response:

Thank you for providing me some food for thought… and while I can’t speak for Dr. Sternberg, I can share my take on the roots of the “test-taking culture”… I’m 70 years old… and in the OK and PA public schools I attended in the 50s and 60s standardized tests were one of the bases (if not the PRIMARY basis) for assigning students to homogeneously groupings… “Back in the day” they were mostly used for sorting STUDENTS (as opposed to SCHOOLS)… and many of my classmates in JHS who were relegated to the “low sections” weren’t around when I graduated… Moreover, PSATs and SATs were routinely used to determine which non-legacy students got to attend “elite” colleges… I also worked as an administrator in public education from 1975 through 2011 where I witnessed a movement to use tests to identify the “gifted and talented” students, a notion I could not support because it ultimately identified a large segment as “UN-gifted and UN-talented”

My thought: those kids shunted aside in the 1960s and 70s and the so-called “UN-gifted and UN-talented” are the “core support” for Mr. Trump… Mr. Trump’s opposition to “liberal elites” resonates with them because it was the “elites” who designed and administered the tests that made them feel like second class citizens throughout their education.

While I sincerely wish the mis-use of standardized tests was a recent phenomenon, my experience as a student and a public school administrator tell me otherwise… Here’s hoping we can free ourselves from this paradigm in the near future.

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