students and teacher in classroom

With No Child Left Behind, policy-makers struggling to shore up America's public education system bet heavily on standardized testing. With the act now up for reauthorization, parents, teachers and more than a few legislators are asking deeper questions: "What are we trying to accomplish in our schools? Are we building minds or storing information? Is our goal critical thinking or high test scores, or all of the above?"


Stop any kid walking the hallways at the Museum School and ask him or her what the students have been learning about this semester and the answer might surprise you: the Eastern Garbage Patch. “What's that?” you might ask, to which the elementary schooler may respond, “It's a huge layer of garbage in the Pacific ocean, floating on top of the water.” Indeed, the Eastern Garbage Patch is a spot where all the non-biodegradable plastic in the ocean goes to swirl lazily around in a big circle, perpetuated by ocean currents. This Garbage Patch, the nine-year-old might also tell you, is bigger than the state of Texas.

It's a pretty new subject, not in any textbooks and certainly not on any state-mandated curriculum guidelines for an elementary school like this, and yet the school's teachers have managed to integrate it into their entire curriculum. Of course, the students here learn traditional subjects as well, mathematics, reading and writing, but their teachers say they're more interested in applying these skills, so in one project students will measure the amount of plastic garbage their households generate each week and then they'll calculate how much goes into a landfill and how much actually gets recycled after it's tossed into a blue bin (3 to 5 percent, it turns out). In another project, they'll send letters to the San Diego city council and they'll visit a council meeting to lobby councilmembers directly.

“How do we make information meaningful and tangible?” asks Phil Beaumont, the Museum School's Director and one of a handful of teachers. “Are they studying the currents just because they have to, or can they really see how this takes effect?” Because it's a charter school, the Museum School has to follow the same state curriculum guidelines that any elementary school must follow, but teachers at the school tend to cast a wary glance at these. Percent of minority students in public schools 2003-04 “We do definitely have guidelines that we have to follow,” Beaumont says, “but is it important for all fourth graders to study California’s Spanish missions, for instance? Is that the main goal, or do we want our kids to be meaningful participants in our society?”

Guiding Minds or Storing Information?

Beaumont's concerns about state guidelines are voiced by other public school educators as well. Jay Tweet, a high school history teacher in Lakeside, California, notes that “For U.S. History these guidelines are so specific and there are so many of them that it's really frustrating.” In fact, California's state guidelines for U.S. History actually break the subject up into two grades, 8th and 11th, with 8th-graders studying pre-Civil War History and 11th-graders studying post-Civil War History. It seems like a simple-enough division, but there are wider implications for student intellectual development, says Tweet.

“The standards for 11th grade have almost nothing about the founding of the country and other things that most teachers would say are pretty important, such as Indian removal, the Mexican-American War, and the acquisition of Texas and California.” Moreover, Tweet thinks, such a standard is somewhat ignorant of child development. “These are issues that are really hard for an 8th grader to deal with, as far as ethical ambiguities are concerned. I know that 11th graders have a hard time with them, so 8th graders must have a hard time as well.”

students, graduates, parents Yet another problem, Tweet says, is that by the time they get to 11th grade, “they don't really remember a lot of that earlier stuff, so I find that I and many other history teachers I know end up covering stuff outside the standards because the students don't have the background that's really important.”

To be fair, policy-makers in California and other states set up these curriculum guidelines in order to make sure that students are studying subject matter that is relevant and important. However, they also have another important function: they tell teachers what will be covered on achievement tests.

Measuring Progress

During the past decade, policy-makers beholden to taxpayers have increasingly opted for a system that easily demonstrates how well tax dollars are being applied to public education. Achievement tests to measure student knowledge retention are currently in vogue, a trend reinforced by No Child Left Behind, which instituted a set of national achievement tests in addition to already existing state achievement tests.

 Headshot of smiling manThe legislative philosophy behind testing, explains California State Senator Jack Scott, is that, “We represent the public and the public expects us to have some hand in the way money is spent.” With test scores, Scott continues, schools can see whether or not they've improved year after year, parents too can look for the highest performing schools in their area, and legislators can see if they've gotten a good return on their investment.

Scott is the chair of the Senate Committee and Subcommittee on Education in California. Asked about the onus on schools to produce “meaningful participants in our society,” Scott dismisses the idea as “too difficult to measure.”

 “I'm sure there are teachers trying to produce responsibility and some of them are trying to turn out good citizens,” says Scott. “But some of this is much more difficult to measure than, say, math proficiency. We can give an algebra test and we can generally be pretty confident that a person has mastered the subject, but how can we know if we have produced a good citizen?”

Scott's analysis comes from the perspective of someone who wants identifiable and easily communicable results, but one problem is that the numbers that emerge from these tests may themselves be difficult to trust. In a paper titled “Diminishing Returns? Gauging the Achievement Effects of Centralized School Accountability” presented this year to the American Educational Research Association, UC Berkeley scholars Bruce Fuller and Joseph Wright showed that state achievement test scores have become increasingly “optimistic” in relation to national achievement test scores. Different states, Fuller and Wright argued, have a variety of ways of making their numbers look better, from offering easier achievement tests to setting the bar for “proficiency” at relatively low levels (since NCLB allows states to set their own proficiency levels). This doesn't seem to be much of a problem in California, which had stringent standards even before NCLB, but many doubt the significance of test scores  Teachers salary dollars increased ONE percent between 1990-91 and 2004-05 even in states with tougher standards. 

Dr. Joel Levine, Dean of the School of Languages and Humanities at Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista, California, recently took part in an educational program where he acted as a school principal in various schools in Chula Vista. At one school, Dr. Levine asked a principal what he thought of standardized testing. The response he received surprised him. “I think it's good and bad,” the principal said, clarifying that standardized testing “gives us a lot of data where we can make all kinds of comparisons at the micro and macro level.”  When asked what's bad about standardized testing, the principal told him, “Well, it doesn't tell us what students really understand.”

 For Levine, as he recounts the story, the contradiction was overwhelming: “I said, 'Do you realize that that's insane?' He didn't get the contradiction of what he was saying: that all those great, elegant depictions of data and comparisons are meaningless if they don't tell us what the students are understanding!”

 Sources of revenue for US Public schools 2002-2003: Federal 8.5%, rest local and stateOther teachers appear to share Levine's dubieties over the efficacy of testing. Andrew Smith is a first-grade teacher at Del Mar Heights Elementary School, a public school in an affluent area whose students score very highly every year on achievement tests. When asked if high-scoring schools have results that are meaningless, he responds in the negative. “If you have a school that does very well on the standardized test, you can say pretty confidently that the kids will replicate that same kind of achievement on other tests,” says Smith, but to this he offers a caveat: “Beyond that, I don't know because the tests are multiple choice, standards-based tests without real opportunities for engagement in critical thinking.” Here Smith brings up the point that teachers often return to: students who perform well on tests will likely perform well on tests in the future, but is this actually useful to them? In other words, do we want to train our children to be great test-takers?

Critical thinking, by contrast, is the skill that educators seem to all want to instill in their students, and yet this is the major discrepancy between what teachers say is necessary and what policy-makers say is necessary. Smith explains the antagonism among teachers toward testing in the following way: “You're basically teaching to the lowest level of thinking where it's just rote knowledge, maybe some application, and when you have kids with every advantage in a district like mine where we have high levels of affluence, we can do a pretty good job of getting kids ready for the test, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we've prepared them for applying broadly or thinking independently with the multiple variables that happen in a real-life context.”

At the other end of the education system, Dr. Levine sees increasing numbers of students at Southwestern College unprepared for the rigors of college coursework, a trend in evidence at other community colleges in the increasing numbers of remedial classes the schools are forced to offer. "They haven't had it modeled, and so they are totally uncultivated thinkers and totally uncultivated learners,” he says.  He ties this to students' poor preparation for serious thinking. “They just haven't learned how to think in a deep, disciplined way,” Levine reflects.  Pie chart: 2005 Expenditures for Public Education: 66% instruction and related activities

This fact doesn't surprise Scott, a former community college president. Community colleges take anyone with a high school diploma, “kind of like the old Ellis Island, as it were,” he remarks, and so it's natural to see very low levels and even high levels of preparation. Still, should the numbers of remedial-level students really be rising if California's educational system, and its much-touted high school exit exam, really is working? In other words, what's the value of that high school diploma?

Back to Basics

On the legislative side of California's school system, Scott sees about 200 education-related bills a year as chair of the committee on education, and he articulates the much simpler vision of education held by California policymakers. In short, they want students to emerge from the education system with “basic skills”: reading, writing, arithmetic.

“I think what we're really trying to say is that when you get down to reading, writing, and arithmetic, you're really talking about the kinds of skills that you have to have just to operate,” argues Scott. “In other words, if you can't read effectively, then that's going to hurt you if you're an automobile mechanic or whether you happen to be a lawyer or a medical doctor. The same thing is true for computational skills. You can't very easily be a retail clerk, or an engineer, or even somebody in the construction business unless you understand something basic about mathematics.”

Scott's assessment sounds realistic, but the problem is that California's educators at all levels maintain serious doubts about a system that proposes to teach and then measure these “basic skills.”  

 2005 unemployment rates, by highest level of education“What is a 'basic skill'?” asks Dr. Levine. “Don't you think a 'basic skill' in education would be learning and thinking? They've made a 'basic skill' decoding the alphabet and knowing 2+2 and defining words. Nobody does that in isolation!”

The disagreement over what is necessary is wide. While Levine assumes thinking skills are the most fundamental thing we'd want for members of our society, Scott defines the function of education as helping produce successful (employed) contributors to the economy. “We don't feel it's necessary for someone, for instance, to have basic musical skills or basic artistic skills in order to succeed,” argues Scott, who concedes, “We do want to offer opportunities for those students who are adept or interested in art and music, [so] that these individuals are able to take these kinds of courses.” This kind of thinking sometimes makes educators groan, one of whom exclaimed, “How are they going to become adept or interested if they're never exposed!”

Of course, the reluctance to pursue other aspects of curriculum outside of the “basic skills” is also related to the fact that these things are testable. As for critical thinking, “Now we're in the realm of 'you can't really count that very easily,'” Levine says. “Does that mean we just ditch it? It's just total convenience.”

Smith concurs, “I think the scale is daunting and the task is very large for educators. Standardized tests allow lawmakers, bureaucrats and administrators to talk with certainty that may be absolutely false. It may be a completely dubious kind of certainty that they're displaying but they want to speak competently about it because it allows them to assume a place of authority and to make decisions based on something.”

Is thinking a "basic skill?"

Back at the Museum School, Phil Beaumont explains the school's philosophy of education. “I think that the intent of education, particularly at our school, is to make sure the kids read fluently, write well, understand math concepts and science concepts,” Beaumont remarks, “but then also to focus on how they can use those concepts and become critical thinkers outside of what they're learning.”

Students at the school are required to take the same national and state achievement tests that other students take, but the school doesn't really focus on preparing students for these tests. Nevertheless, their students manage to perform well above average every year even without questions about the Eastern Garbage Patch. More broadly, recent polls indicate that parents may be growing weary of tests as the most important benchmarks for student progress.  2001 NAEP grade 12 achievement by geography

If it works for the Museum School, then, why not teach critical thinking and let the chips fall where they may when it comes to achievement tests? The problem is that while it certainly would work for some schools, it's a terrible gamble for others. In fact, the risks are high at a time when schools and districts could be severely punished if they don't perform well enough on tests. “You have a huge problem: these tests are high stakes for the school and zero stakes for the student,” argues Tweet.

“As a U.S. history teacher,” Tweet continues, “I can't say there's any one thing about U.S. history that a kid would need to know in order to be a successful adult. If I'm going to judge if my kids successful or not, I would want the following: does the student want to know more about history when they leave my class? Does my student understand how people learn about history and how primary documents are used? Those kinds of things are not about discrete pieces of information but how information is used, which is not in the standards.”

“The basic issue is ‘can people think?’” adds Levine. “What does ‘English skill’ mean? Does it mean you memorize a couple of words long enough to put it on the test? Every human being thinks, [but] it has to be cultivated, and it's not [currently] in school.” Beyond that, Levine suggests, perpetuating the status quo is dangerous when an educated citizenry is necessary to take part in social discussion. “We don't just want critical thinkers,” he says. “We want fair-minded critical thinkers. Ones who will look at their thinking to improve their thinking and for the well-being of others, to improve the lives of others.”

Erik Aker is a freelance journalist based in San Diego, California.