Volume 1, Number 13
4 June 2001

How do Friends Feel about Standardized Tests?

Dear Friends,

On May 20, The New York Times ran a story about Jake Plumley, who had failed a standardized test, but only because the testing company had made an error. Jake had actually passed, but he had to give up a good job and go to summer school, to prepare for the test again. Many similar errors have been reported, and students' lives have been disrupted.

Errors by testing services are a minor problem, however, compared to two major ones: First, Does the government lead the people, or do the people lead the government? (Who determines the standards? Federal or state government, local community, or parents?) And second, do we all have to be the same?

In National Standards in Education, Diane Ravitch argues in favor, "to identify a body of knowledge and skills that children should possess. Standards should be "clear, precise, and brief, . . . they should be about academic subject matter, not attitudes or affective skills, . . . and they should be testable." (New York Times, 2/15/95). On the other hand, Brian Hixon, a teacher in California, writes (New York Times, 1/25/00), "as I teach from day to day, the new expectations from the standards movement are forcing a change in my perceptions. . . I no longer see the students the way I once did -- certainly not in the same exuberant light as when I first started teaching five years ago. Where once there were "challenging' or "marginal' students, I am now beginning to see liabilities. Where once there was a student of "limited promise,' there is now an inescapable deficit that all available efforts will only nominally affect. . . No apologies or arguments about extenuating circumstances are going to shield me from the new state edict: Improve, or expect us at your doorstep.

In my own teaching at the University of Colorado, I never use machine-graded tests. Perhaps machine tests are all right for simple exercises like recognizing parallel lines, but not for either advanced math or the social sciences. I always ask for essays, in which the students must analyze facts they already know, put them in logical order, and reason out an opinion. There is no way to test critical thinking except through the professor's judgment. My students are all good mathematicians. They could pass the standardized tests with flying colors, but they do not know how to think critically unless I give them exercises in it.

Who decides how much math a student should learn? Milwaukee planned a test that "stressed word problems creating real-life situations. It forced students to apply math concepts, think analytically, and show their work." (Washington Post Weekly, 3/3/97.) Do you think such a test could be prepared by the federal government and approved by Congress?

Many other questions affect our country's education. Let me raise some of them, leaving the answers to you. At the end of this letter, I will propose a blanket answer to all of them:

  1. Should affirmative action be applied to education? Surely it has improved the prospects of minorities, but for every one given an advantage, someone else is left out. Instead, should each school or college decide on the amount of diversity it needs and set its own standards, without fear of litigation?
  2. Should teachers' pay be related to performance, or should it be determined by years of service regardless of performance, as the unions have been advocating? If by performance, who evaluates?
  3. Should political positions be taught in the classroom? (How can they be avoided?) Should all sides of political positions be discussed (as I try to do), or should certain "politically correct" positions be taught as if they are "right?" Should the history and literature of the West be ignored in favor of those of Africa and Asia? Or, can history and literature be objectively judged for quality, regardless of its origin?
  4. Tests have shown that American students lag behind Europeans and Japanese in certain subjects. But many argue that once out of school, American graduates have shown more entrepreneurship and problem-solving skills than Europeans and Japanese. (I don't have firm data on this, however). All told, has the quality of American education declined? If so, what can we do about it?
  5. Is education adequately funded? If not, what can we do about it?
  6. Harvard uses its own graduates to interview candidates for the freshman class. I know that many of my interviewees would do well there, but they are turned down for lack of room. At U of Colorado, I have many students who would excel at Harvard. Maybe they didn't want to go there, but if they did, would they have afforded it? Would there have been room? If American consumers want more SUVs, more are built (that's how the market works). If more want to go to Harvard than Harvard will accept, why do not more Harvards spring up? (Oh yes, there are other Ivy colleges, MIT, and Stanford, but these are not enough).
  7. How do you feel about social promotion? Should a student who has not completed the requirements for some grade be passed on to the next, so as not to be left behind his or her age group? Or is social promotion the explanation of ultimate failure?
  8. Do you favor bilingual education? If so, should it be prescribed by the school board, so that minorities with limited English are required to learn first in their native languages, and only later change to English? Or, should they have choice from the start? (When Robin and I lived in Bolivia, and later in Mexico, we threw our children into Spanish-speaking schools, and they picked up the language quicker than we did).
  9. In poll after poll, Blacks and other minorities have favored vouchers, charter schools, or magnet schools, to allow them to exit from decrepit, drug-infested city schools and attend quality schools instead. Opponents argue that vouchers and alternative schools would deprive the public schools of their best students. But should not those "best students" have the same opportunities as our own sons and daughters who may go to Quaker schools?
  10. Often parochial schools have much higher education standards than local public schools. Should pupils be allowed to use public money to go to them? Suppose a low-income student applied to a Quaker school, but there was not enough scholarship money? Should public money be used? More generally, should public money be applied to religious schools?

I propose that all these questions should be answered by parents and students, who would choose their schools. No one should be forced to be like anyone else. In my book, The Moral Economy (Michigan 1998), I propose a way. I haven't found many who agree with it (except a few way-out economists, like me). Certainly my own students do not agree with it. But I think it will happen in about 300 years. Think back to the state of Western education 300 years ago (no public schools, most persons could not read and write) and consider all that has changed since then. I also feel that any economic structure that makes sense &emdash; and I think my education plan does &emdash; will ultimately be adopted, given enough time, provided special interests or power concentrations will not prevent it. So, here is my proposal.

  1. Convert all public schools into private (profit or non-profit) that set their own education plans, their own tuition, and accept all students who qualify educationally and can pay the price.
  2. Establish a loan fund (with government or private money) from which students might borrow any amount needed for education, beginning with elementary and going as far into college, graduate studies or research as they are capable. Since educated people generally earn more than uneducated, the borrowers would use their excess earnings to pay back the loans over their lifetimes, just like amortizing an investment. They might pay back fixed amounts like mortgages, or they might pay back in proportion to their earnings. (They would decide which plan, in advance). I do not accept the argument that graduates should not be debt-ridden for life. They already are, in that we must pay education taxes (the equivalent of repaying loans) for life.
  3. Parents and students would choose the schools and colleges according to their interests. Like customers for automobiles, they would select the ones most suited to their tastes. If tastes and abilities ran toward Ivy League, more Ivy-type colleges would be created, just like SUVs. This idea is based on the proposition that parents and students have a better notion of the truth in education than does a school board or government bureaucracy.
  4. Some schools would have bilingual education, some not, some would have higher standards than others. Parents and students would choose. They might take into account the reputation of the school, since potential employers certainly will.
  5. The only government regulation would be that each educational institution would be required to accept a quota of "difficult" students (however you wish to define "difficult," such as juvenile delinquents and students with low I.Q's. Low I. Q. students would choose between schools especially for them and mainstream schools, which would be required to have special programs to suit their needs.
  6. The education of each generation would therefore be financed by the paybacks from the previous generation. There would be no government finance. (With government finance, "who pays the fiddler calls the tune.")

Please write me if you see any reason why this system would not work, other than that it is, for the current century, politically impossible. Please let me know if you think it is a Quakerly response to our educational problems. Above all, if is is not instituted by the year 2400, send a message to explain to my successor why not. Thank you.

Sincerely your Friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

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I don't know numbers, and I believe that Americans have more of that prized gitgo. But, a lot of what is credited to Americans should be credited to foreigners in the US. A lot. A really large amount. It would be interesting to see a study of prized American traits vs a country of elementary education (through 8th grade). A fair percentage of the remaining explanation of American gitgo can be credited to aspects of our society other than our education system.

I would add to your letter that with trade comes knowledge of the "other" which reduces chances for war, but obviously does not eliminate it. In Yugoslavia, the media reports Milosevic put out on the "other" conflicted with people's personal knowledge, yet people nevertheless began to accept the media reports.

— Karen Street, Berkeley (CA) Friends Meeting.

As an alternative to your point #5, you might have a negative auction for the job of handling the students no one wants--i.e., each would go to the school (otherwise qualified) that demanded the smallest subsidy.

— Stephen Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

If we are to give public funds to schools, whether directly or through intermediaries, we want to assure fiscal responsibility and assure that schools meet some standards. Do this and you end up with a government school system. The system you suggest has some similarities with the GI Bill. It worked well for those who chose Harvard (or Oberlin), but there were problems with institutions whose main purpose turned out to be enrichment of the founders rather than education of students. Sad but true.

This, like some of your other suggestions, relies on the customer having excellent information and judgment and on the provider having excellent ethics. We're not there yet and if we ever get there it will be long after you and I and our children are gone. We need systems that take into account our limitations as well as our strengths. I'm not convinced that the Quaker belief that there is that of God in everyone necessarily means we will reach that perfection.

— Vici Oshiro, Minneapolis (MN) Friends Meeting.

I am very uneasy about your proposal to require all students to borrow money needed for their education, even beginning with elementary education. This seems to imply that the only value of education is to increase earning potential. I believe, however, that a well-educated citizenry is important for the benefit of all society. I have read that part of the reason the United States was so productive after World War II was that the GI Bill made it possible for many members of society to go to college that otherwise would not have done so. Even those who did not use the GI Bill to go to college probably were better off because they could find jobs provided by entrepreneurial college graduates. Instead of a loan fund, how about a GI Bill for everyone, even starting with elementary school?

— Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Meeting.

I would like to see a better defense of why education should not be free to all. Perhaps the answer lies in "the more you pay, the more it's worth", but I am not sure I go along with that. The biggest problem in education is the "problem children", the delinquents and low IQ students who require extra resources. For the rest of us, the solution is simple: the better a student's performance the better should be the educational opportunities provided. The same could be applied to teachers. This would be a little tough to do well because it would require subjective evaluation on a student-by-student and teacher-by-teacher basis.

Our children are our future. Parents, schools and peers are all important influences, but where parents and peers are part of the problem, as in our inner cities, schools become critically important. Many of them are "failing schools." We have to find ways to improve them. Lord Kelvin said many years ago: "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it."

— Gordon Johnson Jr., Trinity United Methodist Church, Alexandria, VA.

National standards will allow comparative judgments between areas and schools. In addition, localities should be free to decide for themselves what they want to measure to evaluate their schools' performance. Let's even ask the schools themselves to come up with the standards they want to use. The important thing is to get started. Markets (the "experts") will then refine and improve the measuring process.

— Gordon Johnson, Sr., Episcopal, Alexandria, VA


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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