The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don’t Have to Be

I’m no testing hawk. I’ve written plenty at Fordham and elsewhere that’s critical of test-driven ed-reform orthodoxy. Accountability is a sacred principal to me, but testing? It’s complicated—as a science, a policy, and a reform lever. Anya Kamenetz’s new book The Test is not complicated. She strikes a strident anti-testing tone right from the start. “Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio. If you’re looking for the good, the bad, and the ugly on testing, well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Part cri de couer, part parenting manual (she may hate testing, but Kamenetz still wants her daughter—and your kids—to do well) The Test is particularly tendentious on the history of standardized tests. “Why so many racists in psychometrics?” she asks (her prose is often glib and always self-assured). “I’m not saying anyone involved in testing today is, de facto, racist. But it’s hard to ignore the shadow of history.”

What is easy for Kamenetz to ignore almost entirely is that some of the strongest support for testing comes from civil rights activists who have used test scores to dramatically alter the education landscape and highlight achievement gaps, all in the name of equality. But this runs counter to her argument that testing “penalizes diversity.” Kati Haycock may have once led affirmative-action programs for the University of California system, but her Education Trust is a “conservative-funded advocacy group in DC.” The Heritage Foundation’s Samuel Casey Carter offers “a mishmash of anecdotal evidence and conservative faith,” yet The Test is larded with Kamenetz’s own mishmash of anecdotal evidence and liberal homilies. A story from her own mother-in-law about a culturally biased test question is “possibly apocryphal,” Kamenetz admits. But she still offers it as “a great illustration of what bias looks like on a test.” 

Kamenetz offers lots of advice on opting out of tests for parents who are, I think, quite reasonably concerned about the deleterious effect of testing on their children’s schooling. Here’s the advice I wish she’d offered: March into the principal’s office with a simple demand. “Don’t waste a minute on test prep. Just teach our kids. The second you turn learning time into test prep, our kids are staying home!” Imagine if Kamenetz and her fellow progressive Brooklyn public school parents did exactly that—teachers and parents could have the hands-on, play-based, child-centered schools of their dreams, and test day would be just another day at school. Unless, of course, the test scores came back weak. Then Kamenetz might write another, more complicated book. And that’s the one I want to read.

SOURCE: Anya Kamenetz, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don’t Have to Be (New York: PublicAffairs, 2015).

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.