January 2, 1998


Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.

C.C.Colton, 1820

President Clinton was pushing for a federal system of standardized tests for our school children. It seems as if the standard remedy to the problem of why many children do not seem to be learning what we would like them to learn, is to test them.

The question that no one seems to be asking is, "How are tests going to help our students to learn more?" The reason that that question isn't being asked is because the answer is obvious: It isn't going to help them at all.

In my student days I took a hellofalot of tests. Did any of them help me to learn? Of course not. The only way that I was helped to learn was by being frightened into studying for them. There is no question that study is conducive to learning. Not-studying doesn't help much of anything.

I recently read an article that deplored the fact(???) that less than 30% of students were learning what they were expected to learn in science. I think that 30% would be wonderful; if true. If 5% learned what was expected of them, it would be miraculous. If the rest learned anything at all, I would consider it a roaring educational success. If 1% went on to become scientists of some sort, we might have trouble finding jobs as scientists for all of them.

As usual, the expectations for children have no correspondence whatever to reality. Everyone is expected to know the capitol of every state, where the state is, where every country in the world is and so on and so on. In other words, every kid, including one with a brain that that barely functions, is expected to be a Jeopardy champion. Of course, all students are expected to know history, geography, science. algebra, geometry, French, Spanish, and maybe even English.

If you gave that standardized test to everyone in the country with a doctorate, I wonder how many would do well on it.

An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle(2/27/94) said "In fact, testing firms know that educators don't like to buy tests that show that children are doing badly. An echo of life in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon was stirred several years ago when it was found that 48 states and the District of Columbia reported that their children were achieving results above the national average." I should explain that Lake Wobegon is a mythical town where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average."

In 1992 the State of California spent $50,000,000 for the California earning Assessment(CLAS) test, only to drop it two years later. For that amount of money you could pay between 1,000 and 2,500 teachers, depending on their experience, for one year. I can guarantee that more teachers and smaller class sizes would help more students to learn. The test helped no one except the people who made the test and sold it to the state.

In the classic movie The Great McGinty, a dialogue takes place between the political boss and the newly elected governor, who has decided that he will be responsible, instead of the political hack that he had been all of his life. The boss says that the state needs a new dam. The governor asks, "what's wrong with the old one?"

Boss: It has a crack in it.

Gov.: We don't need a dam.

Boss: You cheese cake; you think that a dam is to hold water. A dam is to hold concrete! And then it develops a crack and you pour in more concrete.

Well, that is exactly what standardized tests do. They take tax money that should be spent teaching kids and put it into the pockets of the people who make tests. That does absolutely nothing for the children and even less for the teachers and parents.

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