Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Crime and Punishment: The Case of Standardized Testing

Aside from the Five Paragraph Essay (which you all now know I hate), I am also opposed to standardized testing. There are many intellectual reasons why I am against this form of assessment (see here for an example), especially for writing, but there are also broader, more critical reasons why I believe they should not be given.

Standardized testing is essentially a ranking system, an educational class system. It put students "in their places." We are made to believe that the smart kids do well on the tests, go to the best colleges, and get the best jobs because they are "the best and the brightest." Those who aren't naturally the best and the brightest can become so by working hard and studying diligently. It has already been shown, however, that students of color, the working class, and women have traditionally done poorer on these exams, and it is not because they are any less intelligent, but because they cater to a white-male-middle/upper class dominant culture. Furthermore, these tests are rarely indicators of true student ability. If Johnny Billionaire can afford to send his kid to prep school, a private tutor, and Princeton Review classes, while Millie Makesnotsomuch can only send her child to a school with a poor track record for academic excellence, then who will more likely be going to college? While there are the few cases where the underdog comes out on top (and Hollywood must make a movie out of it), the general reality is that those who come from better socioeconomic standings, are white, and are not first-generation Americans are more likely to end up on top.

Who's the Real Criminal?

Aside from reinforcing the crooked power structure that dominates American culture, I believe that standardized testing encourages poor ethics for students (I would also argue teachers, administrators, and those on the testing boards are affected, but that is for another post). Most recently, seven students from Great Neck, Long Island, NY were arrested for their participation in a cheating scandal. The students would pay between $1500-2500 for Sam Eshaghoff, a college sophomore and alumni of Great Neck High School, to take the SATs for them. By producing fake IDs, he would successfully impersonate his classmates and take the exam. He was caught when he started scoring high marks for students with low grades.

It is Sir Thomas Moore who writes in Utopia:
“if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them. ” 

And let's be honest here. Our society is driven by capitalist notions of dog-eat-dog competition. We are told from little kids, "you must do well on the SAT." It is burned into our brains that we have to go to a good school if we want to get a good job, and you can't get into a good school if you don't get good SAT scores. Sure, we are encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities, but I've sat in with the decision makers. If you don't get the score that they are looking for, it's doubtful that they will even begin to review the list of extras that make you a strong candidate. Is it any doubt then that students with the funds to pay their way to the top, would do it? Or that students who had the ability to succeed would cash in on it? Isn't that what America is all about? Finding a free market and seizing the opportunity to build capital?

Even more disturbing is that the problem that the parents, the school, and the SAT board have with this practice doesn't even seem to be about the fact that Eshaghoff was taking the test for other students. The problem seems to be that he took the test for other students who wouldn't have otherwise scored highly. He would have enabled these students passage into a land that should have been forbidden to them. He would not have been caught if he had taken the tests for students who had high marks already.

For going against the big guys, this kid is looking at up to four years in prison,  four years that he would have been in college and just starting his career. At 19 years old, his chance at success if going to be stripped away because he cheated on an exam or rather he helped others cheat. To top it all off, the media is calling this scandal a "cheating ring," as if these kids were drug cartels or members of the mafia to be busted by the Feds.

ETS and the College Board make millions every year by selling kids a chance at seeing their dreams fulfilled. Even worse, there are students who pay out those hundreds of dollars knowing that they will fail and be barred access to a successful future, though they honestly tried and have skills to offer. Who's the real criminal?

Addicted to Success

Cramming is also a result of the standardized testing culture. You try to learn as much as possible in a short period of time so that you can ace the exam. Of course, most of that stuff will be forgotten once the exam is over. I can tell you that of the hundreds of words I memorized to take the GRE, I barely remember 10% of them now. You have to get the good grades, so that you get the good internships and the good jobs. There is so much pressure to do well that students will do almost anything to be able to get the grade, including taking prescription drugs illegally.

Adderall is a hugely popular drug on college campuses across the nation, especially high-ranking ones. The drug, which is typically prescribed for those with ADD, is said to increase students' abilities to focus, especially for long hours. One student in the following video calls it "steroids for your brain." Nicknames for the drug include the "smart drug" or "study buddies."

In this piece a student explains that he didn't know what Adderall was until he got to college. When he asked what it was, he says that the first response he got was that "it helps you get good grades." It's an idea that is echoed throughout the two pieces, the idea that a drug can help you make the cut, to make you a competitor in the education, and later job, market.

For a more in-depth conversation, I would recommend you watch this video:

Failure is a bigger fear than death for many Americans, a fear that the standardized testing market capitalizes on. The pressure to never fail is intense and irrational, especially when "failure" is defined in capitalist terms. It is no wonder, then, that our nation has the biggest drug abuse problem in the world. These kids have decided that ranking high is worth a possible drug addiction, possible depression or suicidal thoughts or a whole slew of other scary side effects. We blame these students for taking drugs, and yes, they are at fault for their own choices, but look at the culture that surrounds them. It says, "you must succeed," with a slight whisper of "no matter what the cost."

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that standardized testing and higher education is about the bottom line. Do the numbers add up? Ranking helps colleges market themselves, helps high schools declare themselves "good school systems," and helps keep those pesky unwanted minorities out of the rich white man's world.

To meet their bottom line, however, we pay a large cost. We sacrifice ethics of all kinds: moral ethics, business ethics, work ethics, academic ethics. They all go out the window when kids learn to keep their "eyes on the prize." When students figure out that school is all a numbers game, learning goes out the window. It becomes about collecting capital, seeing numbers go up, making "investments" in their future, and sadly, intellectual and moral growth don't always add up.

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