Standardized Testing : A Symbol of Incongruence

“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

~ Ellwood P. Cubberley

(1868-1941) American educator, author, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education

A brief history of how schools evolved

 “Factory schools,” as they are now called, originated in Prussia. This was the first time education was provided by the state and learning was regimented. During that time it was a revolutionary step because it meant free education for all. Before that formal education was only meant for the elite. This idea then spread out to the US by the mid 19th century.

By the 20th century, educators in the US, represented notably by Ellwood Cubberley, were deeply interested in creating schools that educated with the same efficiency that the industrial revolution had brought to the factory system of production.

The 3 concepts central to the model were:

1.         The School as Factory

2.         The Child as Product

3.         Standardized Testing as Quality Control

The child was thought of as a piece of raw material to be shaped by the educational ‘factory’ into a quality ‘product’. They were grouped into age based-cohorts and imparted standard lessons as they moved along the assembly line passing through the various stages of the curriculum.

Their approach was considered scientific and based on theories of social efficiency.

While specific facts related to the history of the evolution of the present-day system as it stands today shall always be debated, but when I look back at it from an experiential point of view, I find stark similarities in the above analogy.

The biggest criticism that I personally agree to was made by Sir Kenneth Robinson in this TED Talk. He says that the earlier system was designed to equip kids with skills 12 years later in their lives. Today with the pace that the world is changing, we have no idea what skills will be required 12 years from now. So what are we preparing them for?

Next comes the question mark on “Quality Control Mechanism” which is implemented through standardized testing. I personally view standardized tests as a filter, where we decide what skills are valuable and discard those that are not required. This worked in the industrial era when cycle time was high and the pace of change slow. At that time the schools could make children equipped with “the skills” that would help them earn a decent livelihood in the future.  However, now we do not know, which skills shall be important to survive in the future, so what are we supposed to teach and what are we supposed to test for?

Last but not the least, the present education system favours children with certain types of intelligence while it is biased against children who may lack in these but maybe gifted with certain other types of intelligence. To elaborate, let us consider the “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” by Howard Gardener and assume that there are 9 types of intelligence as given below:

1.         Naturalist (nature smart)

2.         Musical (sound smart)

3.         Logical-mathematical (number/reasoning smart)

4.         Existential (life smart)

5.         Interpersonal (people smart)

6.         Bodily-kinesthetic (body smart)

7.         Linguistic (word smart)

8.         Intra-personal (self smart)

9.         Spatial (picture smart)

Now if the system favours Logical-mathematical intelligence while it penalizes Musical or Spatial Intelligence, then children inherent in the latter two would be rejected by the system. The system is man-made and it grades these children as unintelligent, but children are sentient beings and when they get labelled by a system that currently holds social validation they develop self-doubt and complexes.

I view this system as a dilapidated monument constructed during the industrial era. This moment has been in use since it was constructed and is still being used by the society; hence it cannot be brought down in one go and replaced with a new one. Rather this monument has received patches for some falling parts while for certain parts it has received modern upgrades.

The educational setup in question cannot exist as an isolated system away from the larger social ecosystem. As the sun sets on the industrial era and the dawn of information age arrives, this education system itself will morph or evolve to match the changes in the larger environment. Evolution has already begun.  At one end, we know that the types of intelligence or skills to succeed in the Information Age would be significantly different than those in the Industrial Era. At the other end, disruptions have been seen in pedagogy. Education is no longer impersonal. Children are no longer treated in assembly line batches. The cost of distribution of information has gone down drastically with the advent of the internet and the personal computer. Every child can now learn at his own pace and in his preferred method of learning. However, standardized testing as a quality control mechanism still remains intact as a symbol of incongruence.

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