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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 03/10/2011

Philosophical proof: Why testing obsession is nutty

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Carol Cross, who worked for 20 years in Washington D.C. for a national educational association and an educational curriculum developer. She is now a homeschooling parent and an educational consultant living in Cary, N.C., with a bachelors degree in philosophy from the College of William & Mary and a masters degree in education from George Washington University. This appeared on her blog, Teaching Your Middle Schooler."

By Carol Cross
With all the discussion back and forth about standardized testing and data-driven schools and performance-based teacher evaluation and salary systems, etc., I thought perhaps I should go back to my philosophical roots and use some old-fashioned philosophical proofs to bring clarity to the debate.

I could probably write this all up in formal philosophical logic symbols, but to make it more reader-friendly, I’m just going to use the English language.

Argument #1
High standardized test scores are necessary because they prove the effectiveness of school education.

High standardized testing scores require all students to give the same correct answers to the questions.

For all students to give the same correct answers to the questions, all students must learn the same things in their educational classes.

All students learning the same thing in their education means that school education is standardized.

Therefore, to have high standardized testing score, education must be standardized.

Argument #2
Human brains do not operate the same way; indeed, science is proving all the ways that individual human brains, or at least groups of them, think differently from other groups and/or individuals.

Humans do not have the same personalities, body types, learning styles, or energy levels.

Humans do not have the same body of experiences, histories, or family situations.

Therefore, humans are highly differentiated.

Argument #3
School education is the education of humans.

Humans are highly differentiated.

Therefore, to serve humans, education must be highly differentiated.

But wait! We’ve now proved that education must be standardized AND education must be highly differentiated! Obviously, both can not be true. So which argument is wrong? The one that is based on what science and our own common experience both tell us--that humans are a set of very different creatures? Or the one that is based on a premise that was invented by a subset of humans who decided that high standardized test scores are the best way to evaluate education?

If you are having trouble, let me give you a hint. Arguments 2 and 3 are based on what we philosophers like to call “Facts.” Argument 1 is based on what we call a “Supposition.” Which one do you think triumphs in a logical argument?

Or if philosophy isn’t your thing, try approaching this from a scientific perspective. We just had a class on biodiversity (you can read about it here). Nature supports differentiation, not a reduction in complexity or variety. When humans have interfered with biodiversity by reducing the number of animal or plant or sometimes insect species living in an area, it has generally led to ecological, environmental, or health problems, and often even disasters. Life itself is supported by diversity, not standardization. So why would we be developing an educational system that runs counter to this basic precept of living?

Thus, the problem with all this focus on testing is not just that it doesn’t work, or wastes resources that would be better spent on other things, or that it is unproven.

The problem with such an insistence on standardized testing, and therefore standardized education, is that it runs counter to the fundamental reality of life, which is diversity. And what do we call people who insist on things that are counter to reality? (Let’s skip the obvious topical joke here, folks--this is serious business.) We call them INSANE.

So there you have it. A singular focus on standardized test scores is insanity. I only wish that more educational policy makers would get their heads out of their data and wake up and smell the coffee---coffee that originated, of course, in the rainforest...the most biodiverse ecosystem on this planet.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 10, 2011; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  biodiversty, homeschooling, philosophical proofs, philosophy, school reform, standardized test scores, standardized testing  
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1. To comment on a blog, you have to be able to type.

2. You don't know me! You don't know me.

3. Therefore, I shall go and make a sandwich.

Posted by: gardyloo | March 10, 2011 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Argument #1
High standardized test scores are necessary because they prove the effectiveness of school education.

This is where Ms. Cross' argument goes astray. I'm unaware of any serious researcher or policy expert who contends that high test scores "proves" the effectiveness of school education. The contention is that such scores are an indication of some level of effectiveness, an indication (or a red flag), not a proof.
They argue that, given students who come in with similar achievement levels, test scores at the end of the year (or range of years) can differentiate TO SOME EXTENT the relative effectiveness of the educational experiences the children have had in the interim.

Posted by: jane100000 | March 10, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

An excellent point above.

I would also suggest that the emphasis on standardized testing is in some significant way a result of the achievement gap, which was itself quantified by standardized testing.

Posted by: gardyloo | March 10, 2011 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Good God. This is awful. Why are we being punished?

"I could probably write this all up in formal philosophical logic symbols?"

If only she had! Then, I wouldn't have read it!

But seriously though:

"High standardized test scores are necessary because they prove the effectiveness of school education?"

I would say this:

High standardized test scores are encouraging because they suggest the children in question can read pretty well and can do basic math.

Posted by: bobsomerby | March 10, 2011 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Isn't this exactly the misguided logic that preceded a "A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform"? Does anyone really want to go back to the educational chaos of the 1970s?

"This curricular smorgasbord, combined with extensive student choice, explains a great deal about where we find ourselves today. We offer intermediate algebra, but only 31 percent of our recent high school graduates complete it; we offer French I, but only 13 percent complete it; and we offer geography, but only 16 percent complete it. Calculus is available in schools enrolling about 60 percent of all students, but only 6 percent of all students complete it.

Twenty-five percent of the credits earned by general track high school students are in physical and health education, work experience outside the school, remedial English and mathematics, and personal service and development courses, such as training for adulthood and marriage."

Posted by: frankb1 | March 10, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse

False reasoning. High test scores do not "prove the effectiveness of school education," but consistently very poor standardized test scores strongly indicate an abject failure.

There are severe problems with some of the testing we have. However, most of the tests are trivial and passing them is really just answering, "Were you awake and paying attention at least occasionally?"

Also, that people are different and learn in different ways doesn't mean that there should not be core knowledge that all students should get.

The same mathematics applies to good and poor students alike - as well to those who reject it or don't believe in it.

Also, doing well on standardized testing doesn't mean you can't have differentiation. Some teachers use standardized tests as a convenient excuse for not teaching anything. "We spend so much time teaching to the test, we don't have time to EDUCATE!" If teachers are teaching what they're supposed to be teaching, then the students will do well on the standardized tests. You don't have to answer every question correctly to do well.

To be sure, there ARE problems with the way some standardized tests are implemented. There is too much emphasis on memorization. For example, even in math - IN MATH - students are expected to memorize formulae - an obvious tip-off that the test was written by people with mediocre expertise.

We should be testing students for what they actually need to know to succeed - in life and in the follow-on classes. Did you learn the absolute necessary material pass the next class? No student should ever have to do synthetic division, for example. It's stupid. There's another, generalized method that always works while SD only works on a specific case. It's a waste of time to learn it. Yes, it's nice, if you have the time - but it's not necessary.

Also should review degree requirements. Students should not be required to take algebra 2 - and they need to completely get rid of fake "algebra 2 equivalent" classes wherein students get alg 2 credit for doing work that is, literally, at a 3rd or 4th grade level. (No kidding, no exaggeration, this actually happens.)

"It's nice if they know this, too" is not a good reason to include something in a standard.

Not doing great on standardized tests is one thing, but consistently doing really bad means your students have learned nothing of the subject. It's great if your geometry students feel good about themselves and have "learned about life" and "know about" tiling and fractals and all the cool stuff, but don't pretend they've learned geometry - cause you're only preparing them for the next failure (it won't be a failure anyway, because the administrators / authorities will just decide that teachers can't give failing grades).

Posted by: kgreen1 | March 10, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I think that Ms. Cross presents a good argument.

I might also add another argument:
If the test is a measure of objectives AND a student passes the test in the Fall, then does it not follow that the student could stay home the rest of the year?

Of course not. But, it makes sense if you go with the way the tests are being used.

As a teacher, I loved standardized tests as a tool to show me where I needed to start with my students. I expected at the end of the year to see progress. It was a tool to help--but by no means was it the only tool I used. It should not be used to evaluate teachers--there are too many variables involved.

Posted by: mmkm | March 10, 2011 12:49 PM | Report abuse

frankb1 quoth: "Does anyone really want to go back to the educational chaos of the 1970s?"

The obvious answer from the status quo fans posting on the WP blogs is: yes. No change is what they want, and going retro a la Walmart (but further back) would be positively orgasmic for them.

One of a thousand glimmers into this "thinking" was a commenter's complaint yesterday that Rhee/Henderson have left Washington, DC's schools with no standard curriculum. I could have sworn that many have claimed that Cliff Janey brilliantly installed such a curriculum. Or was it Rhee? Lack of "curriculum," which very rarely is even alluded to in contretemps about tests, does not even make it into the Top Five things lacking in DC's schools. Maybe an experienced DCPS teacher could enlighten us: do we have a curriculum or not? And why doesn't this come up when people complain about excessive testing?

Posted by: OrdinaryDCPerson | March 10, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Valerie Strauss: Why must you always report from the fringes, when there are real educational issues of substance to discuss?

From the New York Times:

"A bipartisan group of educators and business and labor leaders announced on Monday their support for a common curriculum that states could adopt for public schools across the nation.

The proposal, if it gains traction, would go beyond the common academic standards in English and mathematics that about 40 states adopted last year, by providing specific guidelines for schools and teachers about what should be taught in each grade.

For decades, similar calls for common academic standards, curricular materials and tests for use nationwide — the educational model used by many countries in Europe and Asia — have been beaten back by believers in America’s tradition of local control of schools.

But last year’s successful standards-writing movement was a departure, leaving the outlook for this proposal uncertain.

“We are well aware that this will require a sea change in the way that education in America is structured,” says a statement the group published on Monday. But, it adds, attaining the goals laid out in the new common core standards “requires a clear road map in the form of rich, common curriculum content.”

“By ‘curriculum’ we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn,” the statement said. “We do not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans or rigid pedagogical prescriptions.”

The curricular guides “would account for about 50 to 60 percent of a school’s available academic time,” the statement says, with the rest added by local communities, districts and states."

Posted by: frankb1 | March 10, 2011 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Why aren't any readers raising questions about why one person is being allowed to alter the entire system of education in this country simply because he has millions to spend to promote his views? Bill Gates has yet to show that any of his initiatives have led to better teachers or improved education for our students. Cash-starved states and school districts are trampling over themselves on the yellow-brick road to a Wizard with an empty educational record. Civic procedures have been violated over and over again, and no one seems to care.
Sandra Stotsky

Posted by: sstotsky | March 10, 2011 6:49 PM | Report abuse

There is only one reason why standardized tests are being pushed. There is a new cottage industry ( for example Pearson) that makes a killing providing testing materials, etc. to get the kids ready for THE TEST. Then they produce the test. They hire the workers to grade the tests. (That last one is an incredible joke) So now they attach test scores to evaluations and pay. Anyone that works in an elementary school knows that numerous people have a hand in educating students. To attach one test to one teacher/student is simplistic, stupid and a nightmare to enact.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | March 10, 2011 7:13 PM | Report abuse

veteranteacher1 is right on target. When the business community realized how much money was in the public education trough, it started figuring out how to transfer the funds into private pockets. It's so easy to follow the money trail to the Bush family and their friends' businesses (McGraw-hill, Pearson- they're all related) not to mention Neil's crappy (can I say that?) COW learning computer.

Posted by: aed3 | March 10, 2011 7:46 PM | Report abuse

Traditional standard tests only measure the ability to take tests

A 70% driver's license exam score gives you an opportunity to prove that you can actually drive during hands-on, real world driving demonstration

A 70% on standardized tests by school building will brand the school as a failure; yet, a higher score will not demonstrate ...whether the students learned anything constructive

Posted by: Robin4ascii | March 10, 2011 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone understand satire any more? I guess most people never did. Most people thought that Jonathan Swift actually advocated for Ireland's poor to sell their babies as a delicacy to the rich. When Carol Cross says, "High standardized test scores are necessary because they prove the effectiveness of school education;" she is being sarcastic and showing the flawed logic of those who subscribe to that notion.

Posted by: stevendphoto | March 10, 2011 11:35 PM | Report abuse


You've outdone yourself with this post. This woman actually makes Alfie Kohn sound rational. The College of William and Mary and George Washington University must be cringing in embarrassment. This woman is a bona fide 'dingbat.' Her convoluted reasoning coupled with her ubiquitous redundancies completely negate any sense of logic she attempts to employ. This woman more than substantiates any notion of teachers emanating from the lowest rung of academia.

Posted by: paulhoss | March 11, 2011 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Here's an interesting YT video that discusses the issue more forcefully, imo.

I don't agree with all of it, but I think there's a bit of value in it.

Posted by: kgreen1 | March 11, 2011 9:04 AM | Report abuse

This is pure nonsense. Why not just raise Lewis Carroll from the grave to write your next column for you?

Argument #1 gets the purpose of standardized testing wrong, makes the wrong assumption as to standardized tests requiring that all students give the same answer (with some exceptions 3+5 tends to equal 8), and then this assuming that a student couldn't learn this in multiple ways.

Argument #2 is in direct contradiction to what your frequent commenter Dr. Willingham suggests as to the ridiculousness of "learning style" approaches. And he's right!

Argument #3 - two wrongs...actually make a right- sort of, but not like the misguided writer thinks. The differentiation is in the pace of instruction. Certain kids work harder or are "smarter" and learn faster. They all need to learn that 3x5 is 15. Some learn when they are 6, some when they are 9... testing lets us see which ones know it, which ones don't, which ones forgot over the summer...

Posted by: staticvars | March 11, 2011 11:29 AM | Report abuse

The flaw in standardized testing is the "easy to measure" hubris that underlies the high confidence associated with this kind of performance measure. We only ask for what can easily be proven. This simple-minded approach is why we ended up with a devastating financial system crisis. This is why we had no idea about the underlying unrest with ordinary people in Egypt.

How do you test my 8th-grade English teacher who recognized that I was coasting through class? She called me out by giving me a "D" when I was earning a "B" without studying. She was an exceptional teacher. I doubt she would become a teacher in today's "teach to the test" environment.

We ask that our teachers be highly educated and trained, but we treat them with little pay and less respect than a used-car salesman.

While standardized testing may work OK for the middle, it cuts off those with learning disabilities. This creates an incentive to get poor learners to quit school. Just as important, standardized testing also cuts out exceptional students. How may little Shakespeares and Einsteins will be lost when education is just for the middle?

Standardized testing may give us technically proficient students but does nothing for developing the critical thinking that we need for living a rich life and participating in a viable democracy.

Posted by: news4me | March 11, 2011 1:31 PM | Report abuse

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