No Child Left Behind, No Diploma Left Unquestioned - The Social Impact of Standardized Achievement Testing
By Robert Oliphant*
November 6, 2005
We are still a philoprogenitive species. Simply put, we all want a good education for our own children, not necessarily someone else's. We're willing to pay for quality, too, especially that which produces high grades, impressive degrees, and the illusion, if not the reality, that commodity education is worth what it costs us as consumers.
But a standardized high stakes achievement test like the California Bar Examination has very little to do with commodity education. It is pure and simple a solitary personal-best ordeal like running the Boston Marathon: just as horrible for Phi Beta Kappas as No Child Left Behind tests are for fourth graders. It's also embarrassing to schools like UC Berkeley and UCLA, who have seen their first-time passes dwindle from 61% and 73% in Feb. 1995 to 42% and 33% in Feb. 2005.
There's nothing new about high stakes achievement tests for aspiring Americans. Barbers and cosmetologists have to take them; so do law enforcement officers, medical professionals, and college graduates who want to enroll in PhD programs. As opposed to formal education, with its schedules and access restrictions, most high-stakes achievement tests can be taken by anyone at almost any time and with any kind of personal-best preparation.
Some years back, for example, a former student came into my office and proudly announced she has just been accepted by a major university for graduate study in English even though, as she frankly admitted, her grade point average was low and her overall IQ even lower. "I focused on doing well in the Graduate Record Examination in English," she said, "by reading the Norton Anthology of English Literature all the way through - three times."
The arithmetic of her effort still staggers me: 4,000 pages times 3 minutes per page times 3 times through adds up to 36,000 minutes or 600 hours of study.
Officially this is roughly equivalent to a full semester load of 15 semester units. But to make this kind of effort on one's own is still amazing me, as is the fact that other students (very few) have followed this route with equally impressive results.
The marathon, the bar exam, the GRE - personal-best ordeals like these may represent potential tragedies for some of the precocious and favored; but they represent far more of an equal-opportunity route for the rest of us, especially those high stakes tests that can be taken, like the bar exam, again and again and again.
High stakes achievement tests are tortoise friendly. They favor the tenacious, the self-motivated, the solitary learners that keep plugging away in preparation for their Latin exam or their statistics test or their high stakes job interview.
In so doing they parallel the extraordinary growth of the personal-best physical fitness movement in this country during the last few years. They also remind us that learning is produced by learners, not teachers, just as weight loss is produced by dieters and exercisers, not high priced trainers.
Most important, high stakes achievement tests remind us that a nation like this is filled with career surprises, especially if we take a good look at who actually shows up at our twenty-fifth high school reunion.
Commodity education deserves respect, no doubt about it. But this is still a country where actors become senators, governors, and even president, and where an on-the-road tenor saxophone player can end up with a glorious 18-year career as head of the Federal Reserve.
Right now, more than ever before, high stakes achievement testing is a wholesome democratizing force in American life, not just our limping educational system. To respect it is to respect our nation and its basic climate of opportunity and hope. Formal education and personal-best self-education - the combination has always been a winning one for us. And it still is.
* Robert Oliphant’s best-known book is “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (Prentice Hall), which was made into an award-winning EMI film (Monte Carlo, US Directors) starring Bette Davis. His best known work for musical theater (music, lyrics, and libretto) is “Oscar Wilde’s Earnest: A Chamber Opera for Eight Voices and Chorus.” He has a PhD from Stanford, where he studied medieval lexicography under Herbert Dean Meritt, and taught there as a visiting professor of English and Linguistics. He currently serves as executive director of The Alliance for High Speed Recreational Reading, and formerly served as executive director of Californians for Community College Equity. A resident of Thousand Oaks, CA, and an overseas Air Force veteran, he is an emeritus professor of English at Cal State Northridge.