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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 3, November/December 2007

A standardized test for the standardized testers

This test should be offered to all MLAs, especially the minister of education, ministry bureaucrats, and school trustees

By Jim Bowman

Preface: This can be read to, or by, the person being tested.

There is a widely held view that students should be tested in school, because as adults, life will continually test them. The problem with that view is that it is based on a false assumption that all tests in schools are of the pass or fail variety and doesn’t distinguish between those tests and diagnostic tests. Pass or fail tests are involved with conclusions, getting certificates of achievement and the like. They are concerned with the what of the curriculum. On the other hand diagnostic tests are examinations of the process of achievement, temporary assessments of student strengths and weaknesses, the how of teaching.

Think of learning to drive. The final test is pass or fail and the licensor will determine that outcome. However, in the process of learning to drive, diagnosis is the responsibility of the instructor, not the certifier. ‘You failed to shoulder check at the appropriate time. You will not pass the final test if you drive with a cell phone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. You have to wait until you’re certified to do that.’

Standardized tests in schools are supposed to be diagnostic in nature. So is the one that follows. It sticks to the format typical of many, but not all, of the tests given in schools.


1. Canada’s public education system is ranked with Finland and Sweden as one of the top three countries in the world. True or False

2. With the exception of a few states, the USA has a very poor public education system. True or False

3. The USA is the largest producer and user of standardized tests in the so-called First World. True or False

4. Research has shown that, in the USA, teacher-education programs do not get their fair share of the "best and brightest" students entering university. True or False

5. Research has shown that in Canada teacher-education programs do get their fair share of the "best and brightest" students entering university. True or False

6. The "best and the brightest" of experienced teachers appreciate being told how to do what they do in their classrooms by supervisory personnel. True or False

7. The Bush political rhetoric "No child left behind," in reality means more and more testing and a heavy involvement of the private sector in public education. True or False

8. What happens in public education in the USA influences what happens in Canada. (a) Always (b) Quite often (c) Rarely (d) Never.

9. The most important trio in the education of children is: (a) Ministry of Education, children, and school boards. (b) District supervisors, children, and ministry bureaucrats. (c) teachers, children, and parents.

10. In any given class, who knows the children best and can best ascertain their needs? (a) Minister of Education (b) School board (c) District supervisors (d) ministry bureaucrats (e) Teacher.

11. Standardized tests have never been used in BC to compare teachers, classes, schools, or school districts. True or False

12. Is it possible to avoid using standardized test results for comparative purposes in evaluating teachers or schools? (a) yes (b) no (c) very unlikely.

13. The results of any diagnostic test should never be taken out of the context of the classroom. Agree or Disagree

14. Physicians check one’s blood pressure because the Ministry of Health says they must. True or False

15. Teachers’ use of standardized tests should be (a) compulsory, (b) voluntary.

16. Teachers frequently use their own diagnostic tests to assist their students? Yes or No

17. The greatest contributory causes of lack of success in elementary school are socio-economic background, especially poverty and the lack of parents’ reading to, and with, preschool and primary-aged children. True or False

18. Standardized tests help to correct poverty and the lack of parents reading to, and with, pre-school and primary-aged children. True or False

19.Within the bounds of reason and common sense, society at large through its systems of government should determine what is taught in schools. Yes or No

20. Within the bounds of reason and common sense, teachers, not ministers of education, not bureaucrats, not school boards, not supervisory personnel should determine how the what is taught in schools. Yes or No

21. Standardized tests are more likely to help students become (a) critically aware individuals, (b) gullible conformists.

Answers: 1. True, 2. True, 3. True, 4.True, 5.True, 6. False, 7. True, 8. (b), 9. (c), 10. (e) 11. False, 12. (c), 13. Agree, 14. False, 15. (b) 16. yes, 17. True, 18. False, 19. Yes, 20. Yes, 21. (b)

Having completed the test you are probably upset at the arbitrary nature of its structure. For just about every question a really worthwhile answer would need at least a qualifying paragraph, if not an essay, if not a book.

Questions are two-edged swords. They reveal the biases of the questioner as much as the answers reveal the knowledge of the answerer. The answers imply that once the state has determined what shall be taught, then the teacher should decide how it should be taught. Little merit is given to those in supervisory or consulting positions. There are many school trustees, superintendents, and other personnel not in the classroom who give teachers the support services they need. Even ministers of education can be useful (though in BC we have had some lulus). Think of the good work that Eileen Daily did promoting Kindergartens and abolishing the strap.

But when you have quit being mad at the composer of this test, perhaps you could then turn your anger on the standardized tests which are as arbitrary as the one above, asking students to tick somebody else’s answers while seldom giving students a chance to write their own sentences or paragraphs.

Now you might say, so what, give them the silly test then forget about it and get on with the real business of learning. But the tests are only symptoms of a much larger problem—one of functional literacy, the use and comprehension of the language as a whole.

Some years ago, one authority described functional literacy as the ability to understand written instructions, creating universal consumer literacy but with minimal reading skills, a characteristic of a gullible and passive populace. Functional literacy does little to help achieve the real purposes of education, which are to stimulate innate curiosity, creativity and imagination, to develop needed skills, and to help children acquire useful knowledge as opposed to memorizing what Whitehead called "inert" knowledge which, particularly these days, is available at the touch of a mouse.

Real learning, particularly in language, is not a lock-step system. It is a matter of slow and incremental growth as individual as each child. When standardized tests are imposed on classrooms, it must be because outside authorities think they know what children need better than teachers do. This certainly mocks the rhetoric of the establishment about the paramount importance of the classroom in the system of education. What a paradox when the teacher is the most important educator in the learning process, but the least important in the hierarchy. Teachers need organizational support, not directives from the system. Schools are not factories.

When students get to secondary school, they need much more than functional literacy. They should be developing a critical awareness of the world around them. In a liberal democracy we are at the mercy of one another’s vote and surely the ultimate aim of education should be to have everyone capable of thinking for themselves, impervious to blatant propaganda and the lies of demagogues. And if you don’t think there is, in our neighbour to the south, a direct connection between the paucity of their public education system and the ability of the military-industrial-religious fundamentalist complex to hoodwink the populace, you haven’t been paying attention.

Ministries of education and school boards, if they really want to level the academic playing field, should concentrate much more on preschool and primary education. The focus should be on small intimate primary community schools also housing day care and seniors’ activities. They should have good libraries and reach into the community to work with parents of preschool children. Rare is the child, read to since birth, who has trouble learning successfully in school. Over 20 years ago, significant research conducted by the University of London in low economic and multiracial city areas demonstrated the very significant impact of getting parents involved in the reading process. The children, whose parents were involved in their reading, showed greater progress than those who had remedial school tuition.

For those districts with declining enrolments and faced with school closures, school boards should liaise with councils and municipalities to encourage zoning changes that provide for more family housing in the affected areas. Developments in new subdivisions should automatically include these small community-oriented primary schools.

Above all, teachers should be regarded as professionals. If they are treated as technicians who need to be told how to do what they have to do, the "best and brightest" will go elsewhere, and a system no different from that in many US states will prevail.

Jim Bowman, a retired educator, qualified to teach in 1948, taught every grade from 1 to 12, courses for soldiers, displaced persons, and university students. He served in almost every administrative position and retired as the Director of the Government Division of the BCTF in 1987. He long ago declared war on the "workbook-fill-in-the-blanks" process of education which of course includes standardized tests.

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