Standardized Tests? Excuse me! Please.

The discussion of revolt against standardized tests reminds me of an article I published on the subject for the Virginia Journal of Education (VJE)—in 1993. (Plus ça change….). The current discussion on the opinion pages of the January 11, 2015, edition of The Washington Post is about parents choosing to opt their students out of such tests, but I would like to revisit my 1993 piece, which actually addressed the trend of excuses becoming an acceptable substitute for reasons…or effort.

At the time I wrote the VJE article, I was teaching at a large urban high school. Having read the usual commentary of how African Americans fared versus white students or Hispanics (Or Latinos, I am not sure which term was considered inoffensive at the time.) and how we would work to improve the scores next time around.

In December 1992, I returned PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test) scores to my 11th graders. Of my 85 juniors who took the test, one (One…fewer than two, which would have been twice as many) had scored in the top fifty percentile of the nation.


The majority of my junior non-honors students (Now, mind you, the school administrators constantly harangued me for having too many Ds and Fs. I was beginning to experience attacks of conscience for any As or Bs.) fell in the lowest 20 percent. (Thank goodness pride is a sin. At least I dodged that bullet.) My students and their results were typical for T.C. Williams High School.

My students were not stupid or aberrant; their very ordinariness makes them noteworthy.

When I talked with my students about their scores, I was surprised at their honesty and self-awareness. Most of them said tat they didn’t take the tests seriously; they are not at all invested on the tests. They had no choice in whether to take them and they saw the results as a school priority, not theirs.

The grades do not reflect their aptitude or who they are. School authorities had decided that they would pay for all juniors to take them, whether they wanted to or not., whether they intended to continue their education beyond high school or not, whether there was money for books and educational supplies or not. They decided to have all juniors take the test, and it was so.

For the students who had no desire or intention to take the tests that the gods of education had ordained, not taking them seriously distances them from the scores and punishes the school for presuming to make them take them when they do not want to. Besides, if you don’t try, it doesn’t hurt when you fail.

Some students said that they answered the comprehension questions without reading the selections because “they were boring.”

The we talked (I think we have to say “dialogued” now because educationalese doesn’t allow plain speaking.) about what has changed since my cohort and I walked 20 miles each way to school in perpetual winter with our feet wrapped in rags and newspaper and we scored in the 98th/99th percentile.

They comes from broken homes and/or they (or someone in the home) are alcoholic or drug-addicted and/or chronically unemployed and unemployable or workaholic. They (or their sister or girlfriend) are pregnant or planning to be pregnant or have to babysit for their (or their sister’s or girlfriend’s) baby or babies. Or they have to work to pay for a babysitter while they work or don;t go to school. They or their parent(s) or sibling(s) or boyfriend(s) or girlfriend(s) or both are in jail or have to see their probation or parole officers.

They are dyslexic, physically/emotionally/sexually abused or have emotional problems.

And sometimes a, b and c are true.

And sometimes, they have learned that claiming a,b or c not only an acceptable excuse but it comes

with support and the possibility of a court-ordered payday.

Sometimes they are honest. One student asked me in all apparent sincerity whether his absences could be excused because he has “trouble getting up in the morning.”

When I suggested moving his alarm clock to the other side of the room, he knotted his eyebrows (metaphorically) and asked how he could reach it.

Of course there are those whose parents never kissed them, read to them, met them or knew they had been born. Or mama just didn’t have a clue who daddy was, but she had narrowed the (diluted gene-) pool down to a dozen or so around the presumed date of conception.

And then flood gates opened when everyone developed Attention Deficit Disorder or learning disabilities of an unspecified nature. But the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) specifically says that a failing grade would be harmful, so the student smirks while others work. (True case; I had a student who bragged that he didn’t have to do any work and could not fail. And he was graceless enough to smirk about it. Yet, the fifth or so commandment removed my preferred course of action.)

And then the old chestnut that everyone seems to think he is the first to bring forward: “This is not the only class I have.”

In short, students don’t produce because they don’t have to. Obviously, there are exceptions, but for the population we are discussing (and, yes, for every populations except the population of those for whom there are no exceptions, there are exceptions.) there is an excuse for failure to thrive academically. Many are even true and honest, but excuses are so prevalent and abundant that it has become almost impossible to separate the wheat from the chafed. (I know. This is one time when two Fs are better than one.)

Another student tried what she seemed to think was a novel approach. Before she sat down she told me that she hadn’t understood the reading from the previous night. It took three questions to determine that the overarching reason seemed to be that she didn’t even know what she was supposed to have read, not the title, not the author, not the page number. Her response was that she had told me that she didn’t understand. It is no great surprise that she didn’t do well on the quiz.

The variant on that excuse was that I had never told them the assignment even though I kept a list of assignments and dates due for the next week on the board, directed their attention to it and reminded them of the current night’s homework every day.

They forgot. And their parents bought into it, at least when facing the enemy, even when the assignment list was on the board when they came in to plead their child’s case and tell me what an unfeeling oaf I was.

Another student who complained that she didn’t understand the way I teach. She gave vocabulary as an example. I took it from their reading wrote it on the board and gave them time to find the definitions in class before reviewing with them and refining the definitions to something that was reasonable accurate and within their grasp. I had only assigned the words and let them look them up until I found that “concise” definitions sometimes consisted of the first two words. When I assigned a list of adjectives, one girl found nothing suspicious in finding that each of the words was defined as “pertaining to.” She had copied the first two words for each definition.

The 11th girl who wanted a transfer conceded that I had given them the spelling and helped them to find concise definitions, but I didn’t help them to learn them.

If we had had mobile phones while I was still teaching, I am not sure that students would have fared any better because they had no grasp of what they wanted to know if or when they found it.

The girl was incensed when I told her that laziness was not a good reason for a transfer. The assistant principal, as usual, disagreed. With me. And she became someone else’s teaching opportunity.

I dug myself a further hole when I told students that they had better enjoy the excuses while they were in high school, because in the world of work, excuses are not as valued as they are while we are preparing them for the real world.

Enjoy playing the game about all the reasons you can;t get to class on time, because a business owner will fire you instead of transferring you to a rival business (as much as he might like to).

Enjoy telling me that you don;t do homework because you “have to have fun some time.” I suspect that your future former employer will give you all the opportunity you need.

And I want to be there when you tell the boss that you aren’t doing your work because you don;t understand it -or you don;t see how it is relevant to your life, just to see the realization on your face that you are not as clever as you think, and no school administration will make him humor you or play by your rules, rules that everyone knows are absurd and self-destructive, but it is easier to let you have your way than face the heat that comes from holding you responsible.

I wish that they would have believed me when I said that high school will probably be the last time (other than social services maybe) that anyone pretends that your excuses are a satisfactory trade for accomplishment or even minimal effort. But forget about jobs because the hard-working students who came here from countries where want, hunger and government-sponsored terror are the status quo appreciate what they can do her, what they can have her, if their intention is to work hard instead of working the system.

You can resent and belittle students who came here from poor countries for a better way of life, but do so understanding that they will probably also get the jobs you want and live in the neighborhoods you envy.

Why should students exert themselves when the adults in their lives are working so hard to give them excuses for failing, ostensibly in the name of giving them another chance, but more honestly to save themselves the struggle of dealing with them.

Let them graduate without being able to read, without developing self-discipline or gaining any understanding of history or geography or other peoples. That’s what the welfare system is there for.

I should add, lest I begin to begin sounding cynical, that in my 20 plus years of teaching, I had countless students who brought joy to me academically and personally, who took advantage of the opportunities the schools provided. Not only honors students, who ran their own gamut of abilities and intentions, but also students at every academic level who made me proud of their efforts, integrity and success, however that might be defined. They were the reasons that I remained in the classroom for two decades. They are the reasons that it was a rewarding and gratifying experience, despite the wastrels and their enablers.

But, as far as standardized tests, if students do not want to take them, are not motivated to take them, save the money and  your school’s reputation.

Insofar as those who are motivated to take them, ask yourself what the tests prove, other than how well one performs on standardized tests…and what does that result tell you?


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