In Praise of Standardized Tests and Those of Us Who Grade Them

I do a lot of things. One of those things is grading standardized tests at home online. I sit on the couch next to the cat and I get paid to read. I do this for hours pretty much every single week of the year. In doing so, I become someone teachers, parents and students alike love to hate.

You know what? Their hatred is wrong. My role in the educational system is just as important as theirs. I perform one of the most important tasks of anyone in our society. I am a gatekeeper. In doing so, I validate their work and as serve as a necessary check up for our children.

Once upon a time I taught. When I was teaching, I was subject to constant pressure about grades. At one point, I was literally forced to raise the grades of a child with a fifty average. She was a nice child, a sweet little girl but she knew no more about seventh grade American history than a cat knows about the Declaration of Independence. I was ordered by the assistant principal to pass her on the grounds that she was already getting help. She wasn’t the only student with a grade that did not match her true academic abilities. I was also allowed to lower the grades of another student. He had a 95 average. But he was a pain in the ass. He was uncooperative and rude. So instead of the high grade he deserved, he got a 75 because I gave him a lousy grade for classwork.

This happened again and again and again in the years that I taught. It was a common experience among my fellow teachers.

This went on many times. As students we all know this happens. We’ve all done it. We’ve all conned a teacher into giving us a higher grade than we deserved with a smile or a bit of pleading. Many of us have also failed to get the grade we deserved because we didn’t hand in a few pieces of homework or frankly the teacher just didn’t like our behavior. Grades are changeable and always have been. They’re less the written in stone thing we like to pretend, less the totally fair measure we like to believe and far more based on a whim than we dare admit.

As a test reader, none of that factors in. I don’t give a damn that the person taking the test is sweet and kind. I also don’t give a damn that the test taker is a brat. That is not my problem nor my concern. I read what’s on the page. That’s all I do. That is the purest form of assessment possible and the fairest.

I don’t know you. I’ve never met you. You cannot charm me into handing you the A- rather than the B+. You also can’t throw something at me and push that passing grade into a failure. I have no feelings at all about you.

Isn’t this how it should be? If grades are going to mean so much in our society, shouldn’t they be given under the fairest conditions possible? Shouldn’t the person assigning the score have no agenda at all? I have no assistant principal breathing down my neck and watching my grades. I have no father calling to demand that I hand his little darling a better grade or he will sue me. All I have is what’s on the page in front of me and nothing else.

I understand the criticism. Our students probably spend too much time in test preparation. But how is what I do any different than a test given in a class?

Think about what I’m doing now. Here I am. You have never met me. Yet, here I am communicating with you with in writing. You know my name but almost nothing else about me. That is the magic of writing. The writer conveys their thoughts and feelings to the reader. All the writer has are words. Yet it is enough. Isn’t that an amazing skill? Shouldn’t we demand that all our kids be capable of this?

That’s what I help find out. I sit here and I let you know if your child can write well enough to meet a certain standard. I give you the feedback of an utterly disinterested observer with no outside agenda. I am a gatekeeper. A proud, necessary, important gatekeeper. What else can a parent, teacher or student possibly want?

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Gadfly lives and writes in the USA.


  1. February 19, 2014 at 10:29 am —

    While some of your points are clearly worth thinking about, the fact is standardized tests don’t correlate especially well with what they’re supposed to be measuring.

    That is, people who score well on these tests are not the same people who are learning a great deal in their classes (I speak from experience on this one — I broke the curve on every standardized test I took, and meanwhile I spent my entire public school career sitting the back row scribbling in notebooks and ignoring everything any teacher ever said).

    Further, the tests are used to predict future success — to tell us (as academics) who will do well in the academic world in the future. They don’t do that very well either. Grades, not test scores, turn out to be the best indicators of who will do well in the academic setting.

    See here for more on that:

    I also think that schools are now directing way too much attention to the tests, with the result that we’re teaching test-taking, not learning skills and knowledge. But that’s a separate issue.

  2. February 19, 2014 at 10:32 am —

    I don’t mean that comment as harshly as it read, by the way. You’re doing a job the school system wants done, and many people want done. I’m just not convinced it’s a gate we need to have; or at least I’m not convinced that *this* is the sort of gate we want.

  3. February 19, 2014 at 11:09 am —

    You make the only good point I see in standardized testing: that these tests provide feedback on whether a child has met the standards set forth by the state/district. Standardized tests are a useful teaching tool, one of many teachers use to guide instruction and curriculum.

    As a former teacher, my problem with testing comes in answer to your question: “Our students probably spend too much time in test preparation. But how is what I do any different than a test given in a class?”

    The answer is that students spend far too much time on test prep, and what standardized tests do is night and day different from a test given in class for the simple reason that funding is based on test results, so many schools gear the ENTIRE YEAR of instruction towards testing, and huge portions of every class towards how to succeed on the test. As a result, standardized tests aren’t as much an unbiased measurement of the quality of instruction as they are a focal point for an entire curriculum. And frankly, I think they’re a terrible focal point. This is not the fault of the test–that’s just gathering data–, or the test graders–they’re just giving an unbiased grade–, it’s the fault of policy that gives the test more importance than it deserves. Further, it is used as a judge for elements that are outside of the schools’ control, such as the population and community it serves.

    I have taught in five school districts over 13 years, one was a middle class rural district, three were in economically disadvantaged communities, and one was the 2nd wealthiest school district in the state. I do not feel that it is a coincidence that the two middle class and wealthy districts focused minimal time on test preparation: two weeks prior to the test teaching test taking skills, and a curriculum whose standards loosely aligned with the test. While the three economically disadvantaged school districts focused the entire year on getting enough students to pass the test that they could make “Safe Harbor” because they knew they could not make AYP.

    Students at these schools may not have had a home to return to at night, may have lived in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, may not have had food to eat at home, and may have had to babysit siblings instead of focusing on their studies, but our schools were determined to teach them how to answer a free response question like pros. In these districts gifted students and students who would fail anyway got less attention, while those “on the bubble” of passing were given huge amounts of teacher time, smaller class sizes, and extra tutoring.

    When I found myself explaining to a parent of an illiterate 12 year old that her child didn’t qualify for Saturday School Tutoring (complete with games, prizes, and food) because he wasn’t academically skilled enough I hit my breaking point. Children hated being on the bubble, because the schools took away their encore classes (PE, art, robotics, newspaper, choir, band, etc), and put them in additional remedial English and Math classes so that they could pass. The students hated it, and acted up because they had nowhere to burn off their energy and no “fun” classes in their schedule. In one school, we had to move to walking students single file during class changes because behavior got so out of hand.

    I started teaching in 1997, when we were moving back to individualizing student education and encouraging them to meet standards in ways that worked best for them and that filled the gaps in their knowledge/skills. We used standardized tests and quarterly tests to guide that instruction. NCLB and its focus on standardized testing changed all of that, and I saw the classroom move quickly to teaching lecture format (there was too much to cover to do projects or have discussions), whole class learning (small group instruction that allowed me to give better help to kids who didn’t have some basic skills and enrichment to kids who were well ahead of the class was forbidden because it was “less effective” in ensuring that the kids in the bubble all had the same learning experience), monthly practice tests, and weekly test vocabulary lessons (there went one day of the week. . .now I had 80% of the time to cover my actual subject matter).

    It is not the test that is the problem. It is the way in which it is handled because politicians, who disproportionately send their children to private schools, rather than educators make the policy decisions. The politicians and companies that benefit from this are sometimes shockingly out of touch with the communities they serve.

    One of the economically disadvantaged schools at which I taught was in Hawaii, and most of my children spoke Hawaiian Pidgin, Samoan, Marshallese, Hawaiian, or another language in the home. Their bilingualism meant they did poorly on the standardized tests given in English. Despite the fact that multilingualism is an increasingly valuable quality in an employee, we cut funding for most foreign languages because of the test.

    The school’s first outside provider noticed that bilingual students had problems on the test. They were from California and brought with them an AMAZING NEW CURRICULUM that would help the students pass. It was designed for bilingual students. . .who spoke Spanish. All of a sudden I found myself with boxes of books by hispanic writers with alternating pages in English and Spanish. This was a school without funding for enough electricity to allow my room to have working lights if another room turned on the AC, and here we were spending money on books my students could read even less than the ones we had. Why? Because too much importance was placed on the test.

    In that same community, I taught several homeless students, and many more who lived in small homes with many people crammed into them–there are advantages to multi-generational families of course, but I’m sure most would have preferred more space to do it. This is only important because our next outside provider (mandated by NCLB) proudly assured the district that it housed its staff in the community it served. I expected to have new neighbors, but instead, they bought a home for them at the nearby resort community where homes start at just under $2 million. They had no clue what challenges our children faced, nor much of an interest in learning about the culture beyond attending a lu’au or two.

    All of this is to reiterate the last point delegar made: schools (and our nation) are putting too much emphasis on these tests, and with the Common Core curriculum are poised to put even more emphasis on them. As a tool, standardized tests are AWESOME, and as a grader there is nothing wrong with what you do. BUT as a culture, we need to see these as just one more tool in helping us teach kids. . .where our focus should be.

    *rant over, she steps off her soapbox*

  4. February 19, 2014 at 11:09 am —

    Wow. . .that was long. My apologies.

  5. February 19, 2014 at 12:25 pm —

    “Isn’t this how it should be?”
    Frankly: NO
    And this is going to be long, too

    Standardized tests meassure actual skills on a subject better than “normal” class tests. But they have their limits in accuracy.
    And here’s the point: They don’t tell you anything about the how and why of the results. Deek mentioned many examples why students and entire schools perform poorly. And what the results are. But with the standardized tests and their gatekeeping function, they create an illusion of meritocracy and we know that this is not true.
    Also, grades are usually meant to be paedagogical tools. They are not supposed to only reflect intellectual achievement, but also other aspects like doing your homework and not making learning impossible for everybody else.
    Another point is that suddenly the whole systems focusses on the outcome of standardized tests and no longer about the actual students. The skills that I consider to be crucially important in a child’s development into a successful adult member of society CANNOT be tested in a standardized test, but with the focus on them, they are pushed into the background.
    Frankly, as a teacher I don’t give that much of a fuck if a student has a 75% or 82% (which probably even lies within the confidence interval). But I care whether they are able to cooperate, work together and solve conflicts in a constructive manner. I care about whether they have the tools to get information and evaluate them once they’re out of school where they have content spoon fed to them. I care about them becoming people who accept and respect other people. How do you test that and why should math be more important?
    One of the best teachers I ever had once said something that has become my motto: I first and foremost teach children. Then I teach a subject.

  6. February 19, 2014 at 12:29 pm —

    This is interesting, and I promise to think about it. The last line was crucial, though. What else could parents, teachers and students want? Many things, but things that we need to value as a larger society and are not your fault (or scope, if you prefer). Cultural value on learning, a vested interest in education as something more than social control, education systems that are not hopelessly unequal, schools in marginalized districts that are not horribly inadequate, and schools in privileged districts that treat learning as something valuable in itself, and not training for a winner-take-all game, kids in classes who are less likely to be assholes because we teach empathy and humanities and not just tools to get ahead, enough funding that we can support different learning styles and issues, enough choices that learning and having opportunities doesn’t require conforming to often unfair situations. I could go on.

  7. February 19, 2014 at 12:59 pm —

    I disagree. My daughter’s teachers are there to teach her how to read, write and do math. They are not there to do anything else. Would you be comfortable with a deeply Catholic teacher teaching your kids empathy for embryos? Values transmission is my job, not the school principal’s. If you cannot write several coherent paragraphs on a prompt to a reasonable standard that a stranger can understand, you do not deserve a high school diploma.

    • February 19, 2014 at 2:34 pm —

      First, I think you’re conflating two things:
      One is skills that are important and that cannot be tested in standardized tests like being able to cooperate or being able to search for information and to evaluate it.
      The second one is values.
      Yes, I think that schools should teach children values. The core values of a free society. At least here that’s actually part of the curriculum. There are several reasons for this:
      -I don’t think that parents own their children and can turn them into mini-mes. I believe in the rights of the child to gain the necessary tools to function in society. I do’t believe in the rights of homophobic asshole racists to turn their children into homophobic asshole racists while the rest of society stands by and watches because of “parental rights”.
      Right now there is a big debate in Germany, because several States already have, and one more is about to include sexual diveristy into the guidelines. Kids should learn from early on that there’s more than cis heteros, non cis, non-hetero people should be included in schoolbooks. Guess what, I hear the “school’s there to teach them reading and writing, teaching them those things is my task” a lot. And not from people whom I trust to actually give their child adequate information and to convey respect for LGBTQ people.
      -It is illusionary to think that schools do not teach values. When we talk about black history month, when we talk about which books to read in whatever is our language, when we talk about sociology classes, hell, even when we talk about sciences, we’re talking about values.
      -We naturally talk about values when we talk about things like anti-bullying prevention. Should schools simply stop those and delegate that problem to the parents?
      -you’re conflating core values of a society with politics. One is the job of school, the other one isn’t. As a socialist-liberal-atheist-feminist I’m quite aware that I have to keep my mouth shut many times as well. Because that’s not what teaching them some core values is about.
      Last but not least:
      ” If you cannot write several coherent paragraphs on a prompt to a reasonable standard that a stranger can understand, you do not deserve a high school diploma.”
      You do understand that this is problematic with respect to immigrants AND to children with issues in the area of reading/writing?

      • February 19, 2014 at 2:40 pm —

        Oh, forgot one thing: I actually have some faith in my ideas and beliefs and values, so I’m not afraid if school teaches some that are somewhat different (an embryo-loving catholic might be a border case).
        I WANT my children to be confronted with other values and ideas so that they hopefully arrive at the same conclusion as I did by critically examining the ideas themselves, and not because mummy said so.

      • February 19, 2014 at 6:45 pm —

        “It is illusionary to think that schools do not teach values.” This. This. This. Schools teach values all the time. Even, perhaps especially, when we don’t notice. In much of the U.S. right now what schools are teaching is that some kids deserve more than others. More opportunity, a better chance at a future, more resources. Leaving everything to parents (1) can’t really happen and (2) saying so absolves us of noticing what is being ingrained in schools, and then when that inequality plays out in the outside world, throwing up our hands and saying the problem is just “too big” and “too natural” for us to deal with. As a society we invest in public education for many reasons. I’d like some of those reasons to be about actually respecting and valuing each other. When we can write off people who don’t “deserve” a diploma, rather than trying to solve the reasons why they haven’t mastered skills we’ve decided they need, that’s a value we’re teaching right there. It’s the value that some people are “less than” and that we’re ok leaving it at that.

    • February 19, 2014 at 7:25 pm —

      Only reading, writing and math? No science or history? There’s no civics requirement in your district? We have one, and the politics and values overtly mandated in that class are pretty undeniable. There’s also health, which is loaded with values, no matter how a district decides to go about it. I want kids to be able to write coherent sentences, as well. When they can’t it’s harder for them to argue for their rights as members of a society. Education should be there to serve us all, not to weed us out.

  8. February 19, 2014 at 1:33 pm —

    If you can’t trust teachers to grade their students’ tests, why do you trust them with your children?

    That’s hyperbole, of course, and I agree that objective, standardized tests and national benchmarks should play a role in assessment, and this is not meant as an attack on you or your job but rather the overall system. Standardized tests should be used with an acknowledgement of their drawbacks: too often they are invalid or unfair and provide only a snapshot (what if a child is just having a bad day?), yet they are hugely over-relied-upon as the corporations who write them gain more and more control of curriculum and policies. The high-stakes nature of these tests adds huge stress to children and encourages cheating. They may be fairly graded by an objective stranger like you, but there typically remains an awful lot of politics involved in the grading curve and what constitutes a passing grade by state. Yes, some teachers are unfair or otherwise “bad”, and addressing that is a serious matter. But over-emphasis on “accountability” ends up taking away teachers’ ability to design their own assessments and continually assess students in multiple ways based on their daily, intimate knowledge of each child’s needs, strengths, and growth in various areas (which is kinda the whole point of teaching, as others above have said). Furthermore, it contributes to a culture that views the teaching profession with deep suspicion and contempt. And it’s not limited to testing the students. I am working on my master’s in education to become certified to teach secondary science. If I do not pass Pearson’s standardized computer-based teaching tests (complete with TSA-like security theater), and one brand new enormous, onerous, video-and-writing assessment called edTPA, I do not get certified. So the determination of whether I have the potential to teach rests less with the faculty of my school, or my mentor teacher in whose classroom I am student teaching every damn day, and more with strangers on the other side of the country who will never set foot in my classroom and see only a mere snapshot. [/end rant]

  9. February 19, 2014 at 3:10 pm —

    Grades predict college success more than test scores, study says.
    “When it comes to success in college, a new study again raises questions about whether college-entrance exams such as the SAT predict how well students will do.”

    I always did well on tests of any kind at every level of my education. I can only wish that real life was more like taking a test, which I know is not a sentiment a lot of people would share.

  10. February 19, 2014 at 4:31 pm —

    Some of the comments here illustrate exactly why a high school diploma has so little value in our society.

    • February 19, 2014 at 4:51 pm —

      Could you clarify what you mean by this? Are you referring to the fact that what is most important for children to learn, a way of thinking which allows them to incorporate new information and update based on evidence, is not at all what we emphasize? Or were you just going with a heavy handed ad hominem against the other commentors?

  11. February 19, 2014 at 5:08 pm —

    I think it is obvious what I meant.

    Schools are there to teach students to learn to read, write and do math at a twelfth grade level. They are not there to teach kids values such as what to think about certain political subjects. This is exactly what so many employers and other outside sources perceive a high school diploma as nearly worthless. They know that too often the focus on is on other things rather than basic educational skills.

    I don’t give a damn what a seventeen year old thinks about gender. If that teen cannot write several coherent paragraphs on a given prompt — and I frequently see many who cannot — our school system has failed him miserably by any measure. That is one of the reasons what I do has value. Because too often no one says to that seventeen year old that even though he passed English class with a decent grade, his writing skills need vast improvement.

    • February 19, 2014 at 5:37 pm —

      I have a fundamental disagreement with you. I think that the single most important skill school needs to teach is how to update their models of reality based on evidence. The second most important skill school needs to teach is how to learn. A student taught to parrot answers to pass tests is being failed far more than one who struggles to learn things, but once they understand, they remember and can apply what they’ve learned.
      The real reason that a high school diploma’s value in society is dropped is that we are making everyone go to school. One hundred years ago, only about 10% of society went to school, and this was the wealthiest section. If we only wanted to educate the wealthiest 10% now, we could have a high school diploma worth what it once was. Instead we have said that all children should have the opportunity to learn, but we have changed the nature of schools from a comprehensive education, to teaching to pass certain tests, and an increased focus on “job training”, rather than metacognitive skills.
      I don’t hate you for doing the job you’re hired to do, but I disagree with the system which employs you. If you look at some of the other comments, with evidence that such tests don’t accurately predict future performance, you will see that we are taking a skeptical look at the educational system.

      As a side bar, I am not certain that I qualified to graduate my high school, but I graduated because they would have had a hard time explaining what I hadn’t learned due to my excellent (often first in my class of 300) test scores. The things I hadn’t learned were a work ethic, and how to focus. Not shockingly, I failed to graduate college.
      At least I passed all the standardized tests (and actually corrected several of the problems on them, because they were open to interpretation or had other issues)! That means school did its job, right?

    • February 20, 2014 at 1:03 am —

      I get that you don’t care what a 17 year old has to say about gender, or probably anything else for that matter. Why *would* you care what a 17 year old has to say?

      But your insistence that these 17 year olds need to be able to “write several coherent paragraphs on a given prompt” and that they will have (as well) basic educational skills seems founded on a misunderstanding of how writing and education in general works.

      What do you suppose that 17 year old will write about — coherently — if we haven’t taught her anything except basic skills?

      Writing isn’t just putting words in a row. Writing is critical thought. In order to write well, you have to be able to think well. That requires the ability to evaluate ideas, which requires that the 17 year old have been exposed to some ideas. You can’t evaluate different ideas about a topic, or for that matter even think clearly about a given topic, if you’ve never been taught anything, or anything except basic skills.

      And no, our school system is not failing. I know that’s a trope that’s being pushed by Fox News and all their friends, but the facts just don’t bear it out. Test scores have been rising for years, and continue to rise. Students from impoverished backgrounds don’t do as well as students from rich neighborhoods, THAT much is true; but this has little to do with whether we’re teaching basic skills or higher critical thought. It has to do with economic inequality. Which is a different argument.

    • February 20, 2014 at 3:09 am —

      1. So, I care about students leaving school as well-adjusted human beings who have the necessary tools to navigate society while you apparently worry about them not being totally useful for other people to make profit.
      2. You don’t give a damn about what a 17 yo thinks about gender, but I give a damn about gay/queer/trans teenage suicide. But I guess a dead student can’t fail a test, so who cares.
      3. At least for Germany there are studies that this whole “highschool diplomas aren’t worth shit anymore because students get them for free” is bullshit. In subjects where you can compare actual performance now and 40 years ago there is no significant difference. As for other fields: Holy shit did this world change. 30 years ago no (or almost no) high-school student knew how to operate a computer. Now that’s such a basic skill that it’s required just as much as literacy. That is a whole complete new set of additional skills. And if my father in law could take up an apprenticeship with his skills (and pretty obvious difficulties in reading and writing because leghastenia runs in the family) 50 years ago, the same student would no longer qualify nowadays. Because our demands have increased dramatically.
      4. Young people have trouble finding employment because there’s a lack of employment, not because their highschool diploma aren’t worth anything anymore. It’s not like there are millions of qualified jobs lying around in the industrialized world and young people are just too uneducated to do them.
      5. Do your ideas about 17yo students only hold true for the male ones or do they hold true for the female ones, too?

  12. February 19, 2014 at 5:58 pm —

    I have to delurk, because this article hit me where I live, especially today. As a high school teacher, I have plenty to say about standardized tests, but that’s not why I need to comment.

    One of my students came late to class today because she had been with her counsellor. She was crying; her close friend was murdered this weekend. I briefly cried with her, hugged her, and brought her into class, where she feels safe. I did nothing that will further her literacy or numeracy skills in that moment, but I did what was needed. Any teacher who gives a damn about the profession knows that the kids come first. What did I teach her today? That people care about her. That it’s ok to share her grief. That there is no shame in crying. These are things that will stay with her and make her a better grown up, maybe even help her be a more productive person. And if they don’t, so what?

    There are so, so many kids carrying unbearable burdens. In that same class I have a trans* boy who is trying very hard to stop self-harming, a girl whose sister attempted suicide last month, a boy who admitted just today that he struggles with depression, a boy who attempted suicide four years ago and finally admitted it to us earlier this year so he could get help . . . there are more, but I’m already crying. Yes, they absolutely need to know how to write coherently and think critically, but they also need to learn how to function in the world on a human level.

    Literacy matters. Numeracy matters. Science matters. Compassion matters more.

    • February 20, 2014 at 3:12 am —

      Congratulations, you single-handedly destroyed the American highschool diploma by showing love and compassion for your students.*
      I will continue my work towards the destruction of the German highschool diploma and together we will ruin western civilization.

      *I’m totally wondering how people think that students are supposed to learn algebra and essay writing when they’re actually suffering from shit in their lives that breaks adults like toothpicks while they are still kids themselves. I guess they should just get their shit together or else they don’t “deserve” a chance in life.

      • February 20, 2014 at 4:45 pm —

        I’m actually Canadian, but that won’t stop me from wreaking havoc – I’ll just apologize for it afterward!

  13. February 19, 2014 at 8:26 pm —

    The wrong message?

    Show up and we’ll hand you a high school diploma. We’ll pat ourselves on the back for our compassion for doing so because your life is difficult. We’ll play a cruel trick on you by letting you graduate from high school without the skills you need to succeed. We’ll let you waste hundreds of dollars paying for remedial credits when you want to attend college and can’t pass the writing placement tests. Or you can’t get the job you want because you can’t pass the tests employers understandably give because they don’t trust the local high school. Because no teacher had the guts to give you the C instead of the B+. No teacher had the real compassion to tell you that you really need to work on your skills.

    That’s not compassion. That’s the worst kind of cruelty.

    Asking people to demonstrate they have mastered basic skills such as writing several coherent paragraphs to an outside observer in response to a given prompt in order to get a high school diploma is the least we can do for all kids. It’s the only way to make that diploma mean something more than a piece of paper.

    Giving people the skills they need to succeed in life is the best possible compassion. Handing them a meaningless piece of paper is nothing of the sort.

    • February 19, 2014 at 9:09 pm —

      Again, passing your tests didn’t prove that I had the skills I needed to succeed in life. I aced your tests, and was failed by them.

      • February 20, 2014 at 3:19 am —

        Wait, you’re me?
        I remember that I did really well in highschool math. I have have forgotten most things beyond grade 9 and a bit of stochastics (because I need that in real life to make good decisions). Those very testable skills were nothing I ever needed again in life. But just like you I was lacking the very important skills to organize my work and do it. That’s why I nearly dropped out of college and am still struggling hard to get my degree.

    • February 20, 2014 at 1:16 am —

      As I stated above, the skills to write “several coherent paragraphs” on a prompt, and the ability to write and think critically are two different animals. (When, in your actual life, will you have to write “several coherent paragraphs” on a prompt? Especially in 22 minutes? How is this a useful skill for anyone?)

      If you’re seeing crap essays on the tests you’re grading, I’ll suggest there’s a reason for that. Teachers are teaching to what they are TOLD is the requirement of the exam. They teach students an essay model that will succeed on these exams.

      What is this model? An opening paragraph with an “essay map” in it. (A three to five sentence paragraph which states the three points the student will cover in the essay, plus a thesis.) Then three paragraphs of at least five sentences each, each paragraph covering one of the stated points. Then a concluding paragraph in which the student RESTATES the essay map.

      It’s a formula, and no critical thought is needed or required. No attention is paid to whether the student is coming up with interesting or even thoughtful point. The number of sentences per paragraph, I am told, matters MUCH more than any ideas in the essay.

      This is teaching writing skills? This is NOT playing a cruel trick on the students?

      When these kids land in my university classroom, and I have to disabuse them of this sort of crap writing, and get them to see what actual writing is like, it’s a revelation to most of them. They just can’t believe that writing doesn’t have to be stupid or useless; that it doesn’t have to be boring; that it can have an actual function in the actual world.

      If we weren’t teaching to tests, maybe we could even teach that in high school.

      • February 20, 2014 at 1:57 am —

        Hah! OMG delagar, that was me. Top score on the English AP, got to an Ivy, and not only had to learn to write, but had to unlearn the formula 😉

    • February 20, 2014 at 4:56 pm —

      I think perhaps I wasn’t clear yesterday, because my emotions were so raw from the day I’d had. I don’t mean at all that compassion should lead to lower expectations; it just sometimes leads us to find new ways to help kids achieve those expectations. I actually have a fearsome reputation as a grade twelve English teacher, because I know that a passing mark in that course means I believe the student is ready for university. I had to break a few hearts and fail kids who did their best, but simply weren’t yet able to perform at the expected level. My marks are not meaningless.

      You’re getting a lot of flak here, and I can appreciate what it’s like to champion an unpopular opinion, but I have to admit that your statement about us patting our own backs has gotten me a bit prickly. Please don’t make assumptions about the quality of my teaching based on the fact that we disagree about whether teachers should go beyond the three Rs.

  14. February 20, 2014 at 2:09 am —

    In all fairness, I don’t see that a single commenter suggested handing out high school diplomas like advertising leaflets. I didn’t see any comments saying that there should be no standards in education. I saw some nuanced discussion of the challenges faced by teachers and students. Hanoumatoi pointed out why the expectations for a diploma have changed over time. Many commenters expressed concern about the reasons that schools aren’t able to meet students’ needs. At no point did anyone equate compassion with randomly distributing diplomas.

  15. February 20, 2014 at 10:07 am —

    Oy god.

    It is really hard to take people seriously when they argue that asking students to demonstrate the ability to write a few coherent paragraphs in order to get a high school diploma is the same thing as not giving a damn about gay kids. Which is rather a disgusting accusation considering the number of papers I’ve read where gay kids confess to me the pain of being teased for being gay — and the time I’ve taken after reading such essays to try and make sure the kid hopefully gets help from the right person. I have news for you. We do see such essays and those of us who read them do our damnedest to make sure that kid gets help. I want those gay kids to literally have the same rights as everyone else — the right to earn a high school diploma that means they really have mastered high school level work.

    Are you done with the ludicrous accusations, Gillel? Because I would really appreciate not being called a homophobic jerk when I argue that a high school senior should be able to write at the level of a high school senior. A fully functional adult is someone who is capable of expressing themselves effectively in writing. How exactly do you navigate society if you can’t pass a simple writing test?

    So many of you are actually sitting here writing a few coherent paragraphs on a prompt. In order to be considered for a position as a blogger for Grounded Parents you also had to be able demonstrate that you could write effectively on a topic. How could you possibly turn around under those circumstances and argue that all high school graduates should not be required to demonstrate they can do the very same thing?

    • February 20, 2014 at 12:05 pm —

      You are getting attacked, Stacy. I’m sorry. If it’s any comfort, it’s not you we’re mad at it, it’s the whole system of standardized tests, which those of us who work in education (especially) have seen the bad effects of.

      And we are not arguing against teaching writing skills. We are arguing against teaching the sort of writing that score well on standardized tests, for reasons I outline in my comment above. Those skills are not useful (if you have written like that, then no, you would not have gotten a gig at Grounded Parents; nor would I); they do not teach students how to do real writing; and the teaching of them can, in fact, be destructive, since now those students think *that* is what writing is.

    • February 20, 2014 at 12:17 pm —

      Are you done arguing against the imaginary Gillel (sic) who only exists in your head and who called you a homophobic jerk?
      If yes I could actually try to explain to you (again) why I consider your position problematic.
      But so far I have not seen you engage with any of the substantive criticism I and others have made, so I don’t know if this would make any sense.

    • February 20, 2014 at 5:37 pm —

      I have tried very hard to be critical of your ideas and not your person, but you have continually dodged my points, and gone back to your talking points, ignoring the criticism leveled at them by several different commenters here. We have given evidence and personal testimony on how tests don’t help, and can mask deeper deficiencies which are more problematic later on.

      For my part, I misunderstood the purpose of school for most of the time I was there. I thought I was supposed to be learning the things on the test, but this isn’t the most important thing school teaches, or even really in the top few, except for certain basics. I was always in the Honors programs, and the lessons being learned by others in the programs were how to write something that the teacher/test monitor would grade highly, while not really understanding or learning. We were smart, and it was a game. We played the game.

      The accusation leveled is at the system, not at you, and it is that the test system purports to have certain goals, but fails both at those goals AND at ensuring a good education.

  16. February 20, 2014 at 3:18 pm —

    Let’s back up for a moment and ask, what purpose do standardized tests serve. There are some that test basic 3R (reading, writing, ‘rithmatic) skills required for high school graduation. These are NOT the only standardized tests. In fact, the SAT and ACT make most of their money from kids who are college bound. In the latter case we are looking at issues that also tie in very much with the discussion of unequal access to education, but so far these comments haven’t been focussed on that end of the spectrum, so we’ll leave it for now.

    We’ve been looking at the case where students can’t even write a few paragraphs coherently. So let’s agree that one set of standardized tests is a good diagnostic for that. What then? What sort of “gatekeeping” are we looking at? Are we protecting the corporate world from the illiterate hoards? Or are we identifying individuals who have failed and need to be punished? (Which is the way some of this has come across, and I think has raised some hackles.) Are we identifying groups who have been failed by a system? In which case we need to help those individuals already affected and FIX THE SYSTEM. The test results are data, but how we interpret them are not a foregone conclusion.

    Which brings me to the topic of addressing systemic problems solely through individuals. Simply put, it does not work. Since the LGBT issue is a running example here (and not a bad one), I’ll use it. It’s great that you try to get help for kids who are having problems when you can. However, as the parent of a gay gender-fluid identified kid, I can say that the “help” we get her assists her in coping with an unfriendly world. It does jack all to address the problems of bullying and homophobia that she has to deal with INCLUDING in school. The only way to change that is to change the culture and atmosphere produced by mainly non-LGBT people. That includes the school, which you seem to think dispenses (or fails to) basic numeracy and literacy skills in a vacuum.

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