Standardized testing may very well have reached its Orwellian pinnacle. An article in the November 8 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal discusses the University of Wisconsin Systems move to begin testing groups of Freshman and Seniors in order to determine their “skills” growth during their college days. The reporter says that the move is due to growing pressure from, “parents, legislators, employers and students” who are demanding to know if the university is delivering on its promise to educate its students.
In discussing the idea of what students need to “know to succeed” Rebecca Martin, who is the senior vice president for the UW Sytems academic affairs department says, “[It] is an issue we’re constantly looking at because there are things that are important to learn that have been important for many, many years, but there are also things that (we need to address) to prepare students to be successful in the challenges they’re going to face 20, 30 years from now.”
How can anyone decide how to test students in order to see if they have learned what they will need in 30 years to be successful in dealing with the challenges they will face? Who will decide “what” gets tested and how will the results of such an assessment concept be interpreted? For decades politicians and administrators have been using standardized test scoring in this country to rank our students against the students of the world. When the numbers are in our favor (a rarity at this point) they laud the the public educational system patting themselves on the back for funding it. Then when the numbers are not in our favor, these same politicians search for places to lay the blame, most often at the feet of the classroom teacher. There is rarely any mention of the fact that you are comparing lemons and limes – sure they are all students, but the educational systems, values, pedagogy and priorities in these various countries are markedly different.
Politicians and educational bureaucrats have done a marvelous job at conditioning the American public to believe that the only way to know if a child has “learned” is to administer a test. Not a test that shows if a student can use knowledge or skills they have learned to solve problems, but a test to inventory the requisite knowledge that has been established as necessary by these same bureaucrats and politicians. Margret Spelling, Education Secretary, offers this warning in regards to the idea of testing college graduates, “My feeling is if we don’t do it well to ourselves, it’s inevitable the government will do it to us.” I am not sure if that is a warning or threat.
It is interesting that the testing being considered by the University of Wisconsin System is said to measure students competency “in what educators call core competencies – things such as creative problem-solving, critical thinking and communication skills.” Most college courses I remember taking required you to be reasonably competent in these skills in order to pass the course. If I earned my diploma, I knew I had learned to do these things – I had to. How would you develop a single test to measure, let’s say communication skills, that would effectively address this skill as it applies to the future application of a student in Theoretical Physics, or Agricultural Journalism, or Middle Eastern Studies, or International Finance, or Communicative Disorders in Education . . . get the picture?
The article indicates that “university administrators say it’s important that universities develop an accountability system for themselves.” It would only seem logical that if a university wanted to determine how well it was preparing its graduates for the “real world” that they could look at the amount of money the corporate world is spending on training new employees in the very skills this testing is designed to measure. Why don’t they use real world situations to answer the question? Observers such as Tom Peters and Peter Senge have been decrying the problem of retraining for years.
If a university wants to know how well it is training its graduates in these “core competencies,” it need not spend obscene amounts of money perpetuating the myth that standardized testing can tell us anything . . . they need to keep track of their grads and see how many of them are required to go through training in these areas at the request of their employers. This would be a far more powerful assessment than would a test concocted by a group of cloistered academics, politicians bureaucrats.