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An Obsession With Testing

For all the talk about change during the 2008 presidential campaign, one policy area in which the Obama administration differs very little from that of his predecessor is education.

In this morning’s Post, Dana Milbank discusses the similarities between the two.

Unfortunately, his focus is almost entirely on the political consequences, which, as we all know, is far more important than any impact of the policy itself.

Easier to write too since most political analysis these days seems to be based on personal opinion, the louder the better.

Anyway, Milbank does manage to make a few relevant points.

But in education, the Bush-Obama comparison is spot on. If anything, Obama has taken the worst aspect of Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law — an obsession with testing — and amplified it.

Obama has expanded the importance of standardized testing to determine how much teachers will be paid, which educators will be fired and which schools will be closed — despite evidence that such practices are harmful. In the process, he’s offended just about all the liberals involved in or advocating for education without gaining much support from conservatives. (emphasis mine)


There’s nothing wrong with testing*, but when you use tests to determine pay and job security, you inevitably induce teachers to turn children into test-taking automatons, not the creative thinkers that have been the most valuable product of American schools. Test obsession won’t help the bad schools, and it will wreck the good ones. (emphasis mine)

“The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind,” New York University education professor Diane Ravitch, an education official in George H.W. Bush’s administration, wrote of Obama’s education policy in a piece for the Huffington Post. “There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system.” The tests, she said, are “simply not adequate” to separate good teachers and schools from bad.

We can only hope that “Obama’s erstwhile allies” who Milbank claims are now pushing back on his Bush-like education policies are able to alter that all-consuming effort to graduate “test-taking automatons”.

*A more accurate statement would be there’s nothing wrong with assessment.

1 Comment

  1. John M. Weidner, Sr.

    Nice article. The problem with education, as with most of this country’s troubles, are politicians. The politicians are basically concerned with getting re-elected. They are in love with the life style of Congress and will do just about anything to stay there.

    Assessments, when done properly, are a very good thing. To use the standardized tests as the sole means of accountability is wrong. Formative assessments are a great tool to ‘check the oil’ and make adjustments according to the data.

    Summative tests are, in my opinion, too dead end. End of the chapter tests prove my point. We either pass or fail and, if we fail, there is usually no means to re-learn or re-try. If we do get the chance, it is with a penalty, i.e. a reduction of points for the re-take. Then it is on to the next chapter.

    What would have happened if this scenario played out when we were trying to learn how to ride a bike or drive a car? Did our parents inform us that if we did not ‘pass’ on this particular day, we would not be allowed to keep trying until we got it. I don’t think so.

    Take a look at how Nebraska operated their assessment system about ten years when Doug Christensen was the Commissioner of Education. We did use standardized tests, but they were not the sole means of determining the achievement level of our students and the success of the school. It was hard work, but in served the students. A few years ago, this assessment system was dismantled. Why? Politicians had the answers. Too bad.

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