What Mastery Demands: Using Standardized Tests Effectively

John Seel provides a basic roadmap for using standardized tests in the classical school.

Aim at nothing and you will always hit the target.” – Anonymous

Reality is more like rocket science than finger painting. Whether we want to admit it or not, reality is exacting. Reality is demanding and to meet its demands, accountability to standards is required. There is a widespread complaint about standardized testing. It is accused of taking over the curriculum, truncating creativity, stifling the imagination, and shortchanging individuality. But the complaint often reflects a view of education out of synch with reality. Let me explain.

What is the overriding task of education? Education, like all other social sciences, depends on one’s understanding of human nature. If the child is the center of the universe and the task of education is to unleash the child’s own native ability, then certain assumptions invariably follow. If, on the other hand, God is the center of the universe and the task of education is to orient the child’s affections, reason, and embodied habits to Him and the design of creation, then the task of education is quite different. The first assumes that the child is the measure of all things. The second is that God and creation place demands on the child. The first is progressive and the fruit of the Enlightenment. The second is traditional and the fruit of the Greek and Christian tradition. Modern education, and the teacher training that accompanies it, is largely under the sway of progressive premises. As such, it’s based on a false anthropology.

If the challenge of education is to equip children to conform to objective realities, then one’s attitude toward standardized testing is quite different. The only question then is which test is adequate to the task, not whether testing is necessary. There are basically four kinds of standardized tests. The first kind compares students against public schools in general categories such as numeracy and literacy – Stanford and Iowa as well as state mandated exams fit this kind of test. The second does the same against private schools – such as the ERB’s CPT-4. The third compares students against subject matter mastery – such as Advanced Placement exams, SAT II, and the International Bac- calaureate program. The fourth compares students against international norms – such as the International Mathematics and Science Study. In international comparisons, the U.S. has fallen from the top of the class to just average according to the tri- annual OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. Of 30 comparable countries, the United States ranks near the bottom. Take math – Finland is first, followed by South Korea, and the United States is number 25. Same story in science: Finland, number one again. The United States? Number 21. In results published last month, the United States came in 15th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math. If this were the NFL, coaches would be red.

All forms of testing are standardized to a given cohort. There are tests that measure ability against academically dysfunctional schools and those that measure students against academically aspiring schools. Obviously school boards and administrators can superficially make the school look better by comparing the school’s performance against lower standards. And yet, such schools are perpetuating a fraud against parents and students. They are giving them the feeling of mastery, when the reality of mastery has not been attained. This lie must be stopped. Most Christian schools charge tuition. Therefore it is inappropriate to make comparisons with the “free” public schools down the block. Parents investing serious dollars have a right to demand more value for their investment than the fall back position of public schools.

We need to demand subject ma er mastery of our students in an age and grade appropriate manner. We might carefully reconsider the habit of tracking students by ability. All students – regard- less of native ability – should be held to the same high standards. We might avoid biasing grades to short-term memory (by including daily homework grades in the term average) rather than long-term memory that reflects sustained learning.

What would happen to our schools, for example, if we demanded every student pass a comprehensive exam at the end of the year and pass with 80% or higher in order to matriculate to the next level? What would happen if teachers were terminated if less than 80% of their class failed to meet this standard? Invariably, such goals, seemingly draconian, would make an enormous difference in the classroom. It would align the classroom to the kind of expectations that are routinely found on the football field and basketball court. And there are schools that have done just this to great effect. Subject matter mastery places a high standard on classroom teachers and students. There is something honest about it that is quite refreshing.

It is true that many standardized tests are poor measures of learning. The issue is not standardized testing, but which tests best reflect the mission of the school. A school that calls itself “college prep” might measure its students against the performance expectations of Select (3-3-3) and/or Highly Select (4-4-4) colleges and universities. To measure oneself against colleges that will take students with a pulse and a check are no measure of one’s academic standards. There is only a few Christian colleges that fall into the Select category and none to my knowledge that fall into the Highly Select category, except perhaps The King’s College in New York City, which makes a point of its selectivity. If a high percentage of one’s graduates a end Christian colleges, then one’s college admissions success says li le about the quality of one’s academic performance.

In general, repeated studies have shown that Christian K-12 schools lag two-years behind their secular public and/or private school counterparts. This is outrageous. Organizations such as the Council for Educational Standards & Accountability (CESA) have been explicitly created to address this problem. CESA exists to motivate, support, and to hold accountable Christian schools that aspire to superlative academic standards, institutional best practices, and collaboration with like-minded schools.

Minimally, Christian schools can aspire to the highest standards of academic performance and accountability. They might well consider gravitating toward ERB achievement tests, not being satis ed with tests that only measure numeracy and literacy, and aspiring to meeting national norms in subject matter areas, whether those of the Core Knowledge movement or the Advanced Placement exams.

And it is becoming increasingly clear that national norms are inadequate to global competition. We might take into consideration the practices and curriculum of high achieving countries such
as Finland, Korea and Singapore. It’s time to give our students some straight talk, like that of Thomas Friedman, who did not hesitate to write in The World is Flat, “Do your homework or you will be working for the Chinese.” Quoting a Chinese government official, Friedman writes, “Your average kid in the U.S. is growing up in a wealthy country with many opportunities, and many are the kids of advantaged educated people that have a sense of entitlement.

Well, the hard reality for that kid is that ten years from now Wu is going to be his boss and Zhou is going to be the doctor in town. The competition is coming, and many of the kids are going to move into their twenties clueless about these rising forces.” At the very least, it is time for Christian educators to face up to this reality.

This is not to suggest that Christian teachers are anything less than highly motivated, altruistic, underpaid competent classroom teachers. They are and I have had the privilege to work with some of the best. And yet, it is high time that we get over our allergic reaction to standardized tests. Use only the best. Use them appropriately and embrace accountability. Without them we cannot achieve our best. Without them we will be bypassed by students from countries that do. Our children deserve more. Christ and his kingdom demand more. The best Christian educators must demand nothing less.

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The Society for Classical Learning exists to foster human flourishing by making classical Christian education thrive.

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