In 2014, One Size Didn't Fit All

Kids were fed an alphabet soup of uniform standards and tests, and no one was happy about it.


2014 was not a good year for the word “test.” “Standards” (and its equally unpopular cousin “standardized”) didn’t fare too hot, either. The terms paired together, and all hell broke loose—at least in education circles. And in concerned-parent circles. And among activists and lobbyists who’ve increasingly framed the issue as a key example of what’s wrong with public education—and the role government strives to play in shaping it.

Indeed, the topics have riled Congress and even infiltrated discourse about the next United States president; they became a litmus test for partisan divides. They’ve generated headlines ad nauseam such as “School standardized testing is under attack, leaders pledge changes,” and “The Common Core conundrum for 2016.” Just a few weeks ago, Susan Barfield posed this question in a book review she wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek: "Should Parents Band Together to End the Standardized Test?"

A listserv I subscribe to that helps education reporters across the country collaborate on stories, vet sources, and share data teemed this past year with hundreds of emails related to standardized tests and Common Core—to the point that I almost dreaded seeing those words in my inbox. “Common Core Push Back,” reads the subject heading of one listserv email selected at random. “What we do for better test scores,” reads another.“Common Core question.” “Common Core again!” “common core again … sorry.”

But the point isn’t so much that these topics have dominated much of the year’s education news; rather, it’s that the reaction to these types of stories has been largely predictable, and that this sentiment probably won’t change anytime soon. The ballyhoo surrounding the so-called demise of public education also presages what kinds of reform tactics will be making their mark on schools in the near future.

Of course, the issues we’re alluding to here are, in theory, distinct. For one, Common Core—the universal math and reading benchmarks that have been adopted in most states, albeit often precariously—is its own animal. The standards outline what students in each grade are expected to know to be ready for college or their careers in an increasingly globalized and competitive economy. Strictly speaking, the standards are independent from tests, and they’re not intended to dictate what or how teachers instruct.

Meanwhile, classrooms are home to an alphabet soup of different standardized tests, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to the SAT to exams aligned to new—or in some cases old—learning standards. These tests have little to do with each other—other than that the same groups of kids take them. For one, they serve different purposes. Some, like the SAT, come with high stakes for the students (getting them into college). Others—the SBAC, the PARCC, the ACT (Aspire), or the [insert random letters here]—primarily serve as accountability tools, with kids being subjected to testing that affects teachers (their salaries) and schools (their funding). The NAEP, on the other hand, really just exists to measure how students in different states are performing relative to each other.

But this year it became clearer than ever in the public consciousness that these elements are all, in fact, symptoms of the same problem. Tests, standards, standardized tests—they’re the bad guys in the drama known as Public Education 2014.

The phenomenon is in large part a result of the “big data” ethos that’s driving countless industries today. Technological advances have made it easier to track large groups of people, like kids and their teachers, and make sweeping conclusions using a set of numbers on a page. Last year, Bill Gates proposed that big data can “save American schools.” But can it really? As Public Education 2014 might suggest, that approach comes with some significant caveats. Big data risks relegating every student and teacher to some cells in a spreadsheet, a few dots on a scatter plot; it doesn’t embrace them as creative, complex human beings with unique skills and weaknesses, backgrounds, and interests.

They say numbers don’t lie and that’s usually the case … well, until they do.

It’s no surprise that public school educators have been one of the most vocal critics of this phenomenon. As part of controversial accountability strategies in part mandated by the federal government, school districts are increasingly relying on the standards—and the tests aligned to those standards—to determine the merits of teachers, including how much money they earn.

“We are trying to lift children; we are trying to open up their minds, and we are trying to engage them,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, recently told me. “That takes a lot of creativity. And yet the way in which we’re getting measured is by an old-fashioned, factory-mode measurement … When you think about it, it’s insulting and ridiculous to think that ‘test-and-sanction’ is going to work.”

Even the Gates Foundation, which bankrolled the development of the Common Core standards, in June backtracked on its support of the initiative, calling for a moratorium on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, students, and schools.

The resentment clearly isn’t limited to teachers. And it essentially boils down to this premise: Education is suffering because schools are becoming homogenized at the hands of policymakers who don’t have a real clue about or genuine interest in the realities of classrooms, an epidemic exacerbated by over-testing. Hence, the increased movement among parents for greater choice when it comes to their kids’ schooling and this year’s across-the-board backlash against one-size-fits-all education.

True to form, the backlash against one-size-fits-all schooling got creative. In July, Illinois high school teacher David Perrin, for example, wrote a piece asking what Mark Twain would’ve thought about Common Core testing: “The Common Core standards and their assessment tools would have given Twain plenty of fodder for his sardonic wit … As Twain found out at great personal expense, the mere promise of progress is insufficient when the stakes are high. In the case of the Common Core standards, what's at stake is the future of America's students, teachers, and entire public education system.”

Others, meanwhile, focused on the specific types of children they believed are being marginalized because of these new standards. Pat Wingert wrote in January that the standards are “tough” on kids who are still learning English, and Katharine Beals wrote in February that they’re “tough” on kids with special needs.

Standardized testing was often targeted for similar reasons. Meredith Broussard’s July feature titled “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing” argued that this system of universal assessments puts impoverished communities at a disadvantage because it relies on textbooks that underfunded districts can’t afford.

Unfortunately, introducing children to classic works of literature won’t raise their abysmal test scores. This is because standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.

Brossard’s case study? Philadelphia, whose public schools were allotted $0 per student last year for textbooks.

It may be many years until Philadelphia’s education budget matches its curriculum requirements. In the meantime, there are a few things the district—and other flailing school districts in America—can do. Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books. At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job. Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them. Until these things change, it will be impossible to raise standardized test scores—despite the best efforts of the teachers and students who will return to school this fall and find no new books waiting for them.

The retaliation against one-size-fits-all education has extended beyond the realm of exams and learning benchmarks. Perennial criticisms of regimented schooling made a big comeback this past year—calling into question everything from letter grades to the absence of the arts from the hype surrounding science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM), a favorite catchword among politicians (and The Altantic, too).

And the flak wasn’t limited to the K-12 realm: Scrutiny also centered on controversial efforts in some states to develop universal pre-kindergarten programs and on debates about the right way to raise a child, which as the self-proclaimed “elephant mom” Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar argued is different for every family. “I’ve realized that the best parent you can be is the one that you want to be; and there is no perfect parent, just as there is no perfect kid,” she wrote.

Sharma-Sindhar would probably make Harvard University President Drew Gilpen Faust proud. At the Aspen Ideas Festival Faust was asked what the best strategy is for getting into the Ivy League school. Her tip? “Make your children interesting!” But that, according to the year’s consensus on education, can seem like a tough feat with all these tests and standards, grading systems and parenting doctrines.

Nick Romeo captured the deeper issues at play in his recent piece advocating for what he has coined a “Slow School” approach to education. In Slow School, the solutions touted by the Slow Food movement—urban gardens, home-cooked meals, farmers’ markets, and so on—are applied in the classroom.

Slow Food suggests some intriguing ideas for reforming American education. Like food production, American education faces a matrix of connected problems. Teachers and pundits regularly complain about rampant standardized testing, excessive homework loads, the reflexive pursuit of prestige by students and parents, and declining performance on international tests … Just as factories aim to maximize profit, schools seek to boost test scores. In both cases, shortcuts are irresistible. Animals are injected with growth hormones, and students are taught quick tricks to answer test questions they don't fully understand.

In other words, Romeo would say that all this uniformity is sucking the life out of schools.

A Slow School movement would embrace many of the excellent ideas that school reformers have been proposing for decades: de-emphasizing standardized tests, focusing on student happiness, individualizing instruction, and halting the flight of students from their own neighborhood schools. But considering all of these changes as remedies for a single broader problem helps remind us that no single solution will be entirely effective. Slow Food is compelling because it provides a cluster of answers to a series of flaws. Slow School could do the same thing.

The likelihood that we’ll be writing stories next year about the advent of Slow School seems pretty slim. But all the unrest that’s been building up will certainly lead to something.