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Government-Required Testing: The Lay of the Land


Q. Why are the tests today called "assessments"? Why are the things they're learning in school renamed "standards"? Why are there so many words from manufacturing, such as "proficiency" and "benchmark," associated with measuring student achievement these days?


Because that's what the government is doing with these tests: "assessing" each student's academic progress as well as attitudes and beliefs on a wide range of sociocultural issues. The point is to keep measuring each student's potential employability as schooling continues. It's almost as if the student is a "widget" on the public school's "assembly-line" who needs occasional "tinkering" (remediation) and reassessment for quality-control purposes.


If we were still just delivering academic content and testing students' mastery of it, it would be a cheap and easy process. The very fact that there is all this hubbub and enormous expense over assessments - billions of extra dollars, untold additional school and regulatory agency staff - tells you that there is more to it than that.


Two points to ponder: (1) parents and the public are not allowed to see the questions on these assessments, ostensibly so that we don't "sell" them to others, which is ridiculous, but in practice, placing a disconcerting and suspicious veil around the assessments which suggests they may be more about Political Correctness than academics, and (2) the history of the mass assessment of schoolchildren came out of eugenics and a movement to sterilize less intelligent people - sparked by the fear of inherited intellectual inadequacy among the poorer classes. It is chilling to note that the apparent "benchmarking" of the assessments is toward suitability for entry-level employment in blue-collar type work environments.
Coupling that with the apparent "dumbing down" of state learning standards, it suggests that the government's curriculum and assessment systems are designed for the non-college bound student but treating all students as if they had those same low-level prospects out of fear of offending low-income and minority parents and publics.


At any rate, it's all about obtaining and using data. The government is building a database on each student with data on various measurements in far more detail than the old GPA and SAT/ACT scores. The idea is for the government to be accountable to parents and employers that students in general, and each individual student in particular, has mastered the "benchmarks" of a standard education and is "up to specs" for a college education or a good job after high school. Students are considered "human capital" that the government is investing in for a good return on down the road, when the students become productive, tax-paying citizens.


That's not all bad. One of the main purposes of schooling is, after all, to help you become self-sufficient and make a living. It gets scary, though, when you factor in all the nonacademic data that is being collected, and the increasingly nonacademic nature of the questions on the government assessments.


For example, on a statewide assessment in Pennsylvania, called the "EQA" (Educational Quality Assessment), students were asked, and scored upon, questions such as these:


         I don't receive much attention at home.


         The prospect of working most of my adult life depresses me.


         A person in a crowd is standing on a street corner. They are protesting about something. Some people pick up rocks and start throwing them at windows. I would ALSO THROW ROCKS when I knew: (a) There was no chance of getting caught, (b) I agreed with what they were protesting about, (c) My closest friend decided to throw rocks.


-- Book, Outcome-Based Education:

The State's Assault on Our Children's Values,

Peg Luksik and Pamela Hobbs Hoffecker, 1995


See how little these have to do with academics? See how they zero in on attitudes, and each student's feelings and "locus of control," or what makes him or her conform?


Tests teach, and apparently, these assessments are teaching educators that they SHOULD be delving into emotions and attitudes and doing amateur psychological profiling in order to help their students score well on these assessments.


Why is all of this going on?


To "assess" is to appraise or estimate the value of something, or in this case, someone. Like it or not, the government is gradually changing the point of schooling away from developing a knowledgeable citizen to one who meets the state's standards on a wide variety of measurements, not all of them academic. Opinions, attitudes, values and beliefs are being assessed, measured and recorded for use in shaping new curriculum and assessment questions for the future.


Since everything in education is supposed to be "data-driven," there are electronic portfolios being built on every student that include all kinds of information to help teachers and, later on, college admissions officers and employers "assess" the student for not just reading comprehension and math computation, but also "affective" categories such as honesty, tolerance, whether you resist or succumb to peer pressure, and how well you work in a group.


Here are some pieces of the assessment puzzle that may affect students today:


         Annual "accountability' testing under No Child Left Behind


         NAEP - the National Assessment of Educational Progress, currently given on a spot-check basis but, many people feel, destined to become the one and only nationally standardized test someday


         Career planning assessments such as the PLAN


         SCANS - Secretary's Commission for Achieving National Skills -- work skills assessments through the U. S. Department of Labor


         PSAT, SAT, and ACT -- although college admissions tests are voluntary most everywhere, the State of Colorado requires all students to take the ACT


         Graduation exit exams


Homework: Here is a primer on No Child Left Behind's assessment requirements from the national group of state-level education officials, the Council of Chief State School Officers:


By Susan Darst Williams Testing 02 2008


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