No YA Left Behind
By Crispin Sartwell
Undoubtedly, the next frontier in American education is standardized testing for college students. The Commission on the Future of Higher Education, appointed last fall by the secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, seems poised to make such a recommendation. From the other side, pressure is coming from college administrations, among whom the idea of standardization passes by the bland name "assessment."
The Republicans will do it in the name of "standards" and "accountability": no young adult left behind. The Democrats will do it in the spirit of fairness, in their abiding insight that it takes a bureaucracy to raise a YA. And everyone will do it in the name of "competitiveness in the global economy."
Let me try to say why the continuing standardization of education is horrendously misguided.
The false picture on which the project depends is that there is a steady antecedent content which can be measured without effecting the underlying material. Then the scores merely hold people "accountable" for what they have been or ought to have been teaching all along, which can now be "assessed." But once you build in incentives to increase test scores, the content of the educational process is determined by the tests themselves.
In effect, standardized testing has already imposed a uniform curriculum on the nation's K-12 schools. It has already essentially destroyed the autonomy of the local school, the students and teachers within that school, local school districts, and state school administrations. What you teach is what will enable you to do well on the tests, because your funding depends on it.
And many people, including no doubt the people who write the tests as well as Sylvan or Barron's, will essentially tell you, for a fee, the material that will enable people to score well on the test.
Among other effects, this amounts to an unprecedented program of cultural and regional homogenization.
Furthermore, the tests not only determine the content but the pedagogy by which the content is conveyed. In fact, college programs in education are awash in research into which techniques are most effective in terms of test scores. Whatever else these studies show, the new competitive excellent accountable pedagogy will involve the incessant chanting of a few buzz phrases and rigid adherence to mechanical forms.
More deeply, the form and content of education as fixed by standardized testing assumes and enforces a particularly impoverished model of human knowledge. First of all, it is a quantitative model, and exists in deep tension with non-quantitative disciplines such as literature, history, and philosophy. We already see this vividly in incoming freshmen, who are bewildered by the tantalizing amorphousness or elusiveness of these disciplines.
And second, the standardized tests measure knowledge in pieces, as little discreet sentence- or formula-size bits. Anyone who ever loved any of the disciplines of a college education didn't love them merely for these bits, but for the glimpses of system or struggle they yielded.
Education for standardized testing is a long meaningless slog through a Sahara of infobits. What a machine can grade is precisely what a machine can learn.
In the case of colleges, there is no better guarantee that education is taking place than the diversity of institutions. You could find yourself in a wild corner of funk like Antioch, or at a buttoned-down Pepperdine, the local community college or Princeton. The student and the parents try to find the right place, the right process, the right people.
What people emerge is unpredictable. That's good.
Once the federal government is writing the national college curriculum, the content of college education will become - actually at that point it should become - a political matter. The right will try to use it to instill love of the homeland while the left will re-phrase for political correctness.
The colleges will be ranked and ultimately funded by test scores; all other measures will appear ridiculous. Professors will be trained in the relevant pedagogies, content guidelines for each course will soon circulate within universities and between them. No one will be able to spare any time or money for eccentricity or wisdom or sheer cussedness or passion.
Or, in short, for education.