Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Why Do the Feds Heart Testing?

It has been a fact of educational life for so long, that we don't take the question out and ask it much any more, but really--

Why is there a federal requirement to give students a standardized test?

Why has that provision, that requirement, that burden been given the weight of federal regulation? Even as ESSA tore down and ripped up many pieces of federal oversight and regulation, that provision was never in doubt. At best, for a while, there was hope that the testing requirement would be reduced, but nobody ever thought that the federal requirement to make schools give students a standardized test would go away. And it didn't.

But why? Why does the federal government believe that an important national interest is served by testing every American school student, year after year?

There's no federal requirement that every automobile be inspected year after year. There's no federal requirement to even register firearms, let alone make sure they're still working properly. Federal requirements for food are loose and getting looser, with the FDA limited in how much inspecting they can get done and what they can do about the results. There's no annual federal testing requirement for soldiers and armaments, no federal requirement for annual testing of road surfaces, no federal requirement for annual testing of judges or legislators-- you get the idea. There's a big long list of things that are important for the welfare and safety of the country, a long list of things that taxpayers spend big money on, and yet do not operate under a federal demand for constant testing.

On top of that, once the federally required tests have been given-- what will the feds do with the results?

The official answer under ESSA is "Nothing." The feds don't get to draw pass-fail lines, nor do they get to proscribe the consequences for schools on the fail side of the line. There's enough leeway in how states can handle their testing that it won't be possible to make a legit comparison between states. And the NAEP (America's Report Card) will still be a thing, anyway. So why do the feds need to require that Big Standardized Tests be given to every student in every year for every grade 3-8.

What federal interest is served by requiring these tests? Do they make us safer? Smarter? If we want to require that each state monitors its school system to make sure that nobody is falling through the cracks or being deprived of an education, then why not require that the states do that-- why require the mechanism of a very narrow BS Test?

I know the unofficial reasons. Pearson et al are making a buttload of money from testing, and they'd prefer not to stop. The government will continue to collect giant heaping mountains of data from testing which will help keep the dream of a cradle to career pipeline alive. And a whole bunch of people believe that tests are magical devices that somehow make education work, and that without a federally required test, education would collapse into anarchy with teachers napping and students mired in ignorance, knickerbockers rolled down below their knees, dogs and cats living together, and the country conquered by Estonia.

But seriously. We became one of the most powerful and successful nations on earth without federally mandated BS Tests. We instituted federally mandated BS Tests in order to achieve certain swell goals, and we achieved none of them. Now we don't even have federal aspirations to accomplish certain goals attached to the BS Tests, and yet the tests are still here, enshrined in law, like a federal appendix that can't do anything except maybe swell and burst and spread poison throughout the body. Federally mandated tests are the education equivalent of the Bridge To Nowhere.

"Well, it's the law now, so we have to live with it," is what many school administrators will say. And that 95% requirement may give some states pause. But they don't have to live with federally mandated BS Testing. And you know who really really doesn't have to live with it?


Prohibition died as law because people just ignored it. Citizens wouldn't follow the law, and states wouldn't enforce it.


  1. I was raised Methodist and still occasionally attend Methodist services. Your post reminds me of a story told in a sermon once. The minister said he attended a Methodist church in Europe once where, at the end of the service, the congregation turned and bowed to the back wall. He asked around about why they do that and no one, including the minister of that church, knew. Years later he got a letter from that minister saying that they had done some renovation on the church and had uncovered a mural of the Virgin Mary on the back wall. Apparently the church had once been a Catholic church and, upon its conversion to a Methodist church many of the parishioners had remained the same. Methodism doesn't have a whole lot to say about the Virgin Mary and certainly doesn't bow to her, but the former Catholics nonetheless continued their treasured tradition even to the point that no one could remember why any more.

    Even the test proponents can't really remember why we do it anymore, but it's such a treasured tradition that we have to go on doing it year after year even though it's in direct violation of what we supposedly believe as a democracy, just like worshiping Mary is in direct violation of the precepts of Methodism.

  2. Don't forget that the tests are needed to rank and grade schools in order to shut down the "bad" ones and replace them with "good" charter schools. This is a powerful economic incentive to keep this sort of testing around.

  3. Great post, Peter, but I cannot figure out why it isn't obvious to people at the Dept. of Ed. I have to accept that they are completely out of touch with humanity. I am not being facetious. That is astounding to me, every day. This testing culture is as bizarre as blood-letting, and people had at least some (albeit faulty) "scientific" logic to back that up. The current scientific review of the testing process points to all kinds of sick things and in the end amounts to abuse. I believe the fall-out is and will be even worse than we realize at this point.

  4. Shut down the USDOE. It needs to be abolished.

  5. I think some legislators have bought the lie that standardized tests will provide some kind if safeguard for minorities. In reality, the tests have widened the chasm and highlighted the haves vs. the have nots. This is all obviously about money. And since teachers and proponents of public ed hardly vote, or worse, vote against public ed by simply identifying with their party, the money is easy and won't stop until either we completely refuse to test the kids, like nationwide, or parents get loud, en masse.

  6. For some reason, many legislators think tests are some kind of safeguard for minorities. In actuality, tests have deepened the chasm and highlighted the haves vs.the have nots.