Obama had his “Sputnik Moment,“ when standardized test scores around the world pointed to the mediocrity of American students in reading, math and sciences. There is now a major mantra coming from Washington to all state capitals: the “race to the top” is on, and it doesn't include a continuation of the downward spiral of test scores. The new modus operandi: Leave aside achievement throughout the years in high school, the stream of G.P.As., the difficulty of courses taken during the years in 9 to 12, and any creative projects done by students. Base everything on standardized tests.
When career prospects, prestige, and job security are connected to one and only one criteria — score on a standardized test — human nature is bound to creep in. Baseball players start taking steroids; Olympic athletes try every means to beat the system. Will it happen to dedicated teachers who are working hard to educate our next generation? Will temptation overtake honesty, integrity and ethical behavior?
The jury is out regarding schools in Washington DC, which was considered a shining star of improvement in math, sciences and reading. Many teachers were given bonuses exceeding $8,000; higher-ups were also rewarded.
However, the statistical analysis of erased incorrect answers — replaced with correct answers —on standardized tests have created serious doubts in the minds of the general public and of educators. Acting School Chancellor Kaya Henderson has asked the D.C. Inspector General to investigate reports that a sharp gain in some standardized tests scores may be the result of cheating, and members of the press have asked for subpoenas to be issued to get at the truth. Obviously, a thorough investigation is needed.
Similarly, in Georgia, test scores improved in Atlanta while several officials were indicted and a few resigned. In Indiana, a Department of Education official believes that a test coordinator from the school system copied a test question and distributed it on Facebook. And Texas Education Agency Commissioner Shirley Neeley has launched an effort to catch cheating on standardized tests, not by students, but by teachers.
The all powerful teachers unions, as well as budget-cutting tea party-influenced elected legislators are all pushing their own agendas. The forgotten question: How will an extreme emphasis on standardized tests affect students?
India may offer a possible clue. A country of over 1 billion in population, with several million graduating from high school per year (with average class sizes at 50 or larger), the competition to get into most prestigious institutions is extreme: consider 455,000 students attempting to land a seat in the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, the globally recognized English language Engineering College, with less than few thousand seats. The competition for good medical and, business schools throughout the country is equally fierce. And remember— all that matters is your score on the standardized test.
A Mumbai publication recently highlighted the human cost of Indian education “successes". The statistics draw a bleak picture of elite students in India. About 19 students commit suicide per day, with six of these attributed to the “fear of failure on standardized test,” the sole school selection criteria. Student suicides in India were 6,060 in the year 2008, and increased to 6,761 by 2009. The states with above average literacy, with extreme competition for prestigious education institutes, are number one and two in suicides. Psychologists and education professionals are attributing this to “excessive emphasis” on standardized tests, parental expectations, and social pressure to succeed. Think Tiger Mom!
The suicide rate is so alarming that the Minster of Law (comparable to an Attorney General) has suggested “decriminalizing” suicide (currently, anyone who survives a suicide is subject to prosecution). The local English language columnist, Gitanjali Maria, observes that “Childhood should be the days of fun, not memorizing equations." Hone your talents and discover your hidden strengths, Maria recommends, instead of spending every waking moment preparing for the next standardized test.
The system of standardized tests rarely allows a student to enjoy any subject or to discover the beauty of math or physics. All the knowledge, fun, desire and ability to enjoy and excel is filtered down to one scantron that will decide the zip code you will live in, your bank balance, and whether you will have a good job or just get by. We all need to recognize the difference between a 'race to the top', and a race to memorize formula with the sole objective of “fill the correct blank with a Number 2 pencil”.
Shashi Parulekar is an engineer by training. He holds an MBA, and served as Asia Pacific M.D. with Parker Hannifin Co in Michigan for over ten years. He is a global business executive by profession and a demographer by passion.
Photo by By Shannan Muskopf, biologycorner: Standardized Test