How Standardized Tests Stunt the Intellectual Growth of Asian American Students

Standardized testing was pretty much invented by the Chinese. As an American of Taiwanese and Chinese heritage, this means that standardized testing is part of my ethnic and ancestral heritage. The fact that Asian Americans tend to score better than everyone else on standardized tests is not news to anyone. I mean, after 5,000 years of test prep culture (there’s even a god of testing), it’s not really a surprise right?

But what are the consequences of all this standardized testing? After a lifetime of school here in the United States spanning from pre-school to my Ph.D. in Education (20 years of school), as well as 14 years as a professional educator in both public school and private settings, I’ve given this a lot of thought. I’ve come to the conclusion that standardized tests, a vestige of ancient China, stunt the intellectual growth of not just Asian American students but of all students.

Let me explain.

There’s a lot of controversy over the use of standardized tests to measure school, teacher, and student progress (let’s not forget parents and communities, too), especially when those test scores are used to make teachers and schools “accountable” for their performance. Basically, we use standardized tests as a sort of thermometer for educational quality.

I think the best way to judge the effectiveness of standardized tests as a measure of educational quality is to analyze it against our ideals and goals for what makes a quality and successful education.

The Goal of Education

Using an American value system, one that I personally believe in, a quality education should produce knowledgeable and analytical thinkers that become compassionate, just, and thoughtful decision-makers for our country. Everyone gets to vote and for the welfare and continued strength of our country and homeland, we want everyone who votes to be a quality voter, capable of not only living a life of intelligent and caring self-determination but also capable of being a quality contributor to the great experiment that is American democracy.

How Standardized Tests Discourage People Away from this Goal

What is the definition of “standardized”? In short, the same for everyone everywhere. That means there is one right answer or at least a set of right answers for every question or problem presented. When a student sits down to take one of these tests, that child either picks the right answer or the wrong answer. End of discussion. No appeals or rebuttals allowed.

Simply and harshly put, standardized tests are the intellectual equivalent of tyranny. There is no encouragement of the student to think for themselves. Instead, they are basically coerced to give the expected answer, the accepted answer and nothing else. Do otherwise, and the child is punished with shame and lower level class assignments, sometimes worse.

I don’t need to go into detail of how this is not even in the same universe let alone ballpark of the goal for education stated above.

Bottom line: standardized tests do not encourage the intellectual critical thinking needed to deal with the complex and dynamic realities of our world and society nor do they encourage compassion and care for our fellow humans. Not only does it fail in helping us measure and provide quality education for our next generation of citizens, it horrifyingly does the exact opposite—promoting the sort of despotic mentality that goes against the very grain of American liberty.

That is not just UNACCEPTABLE, it is UNETHICAL.

However, I do hate it when people complain about a problem and provide no suggestion of a solution, so let me also elaborate on what I strongly believe is a doable alternative to the current standardized testing situation.

The Real Demon Behind Standardized Tests

Demonizing standardized tests is like blaming the gun for the murder. A standardized test is simply a human constructed tool meant to measure the educational attainment of students. It is created based on rigorous statistical standards and norms accepted among top experts and researchers in the fields of psychological and educational measurement. And any of those experts will tell you that the tool is LIMITED. The tool is not perfect and is subject to the biases and assumptions of its creators and all the uncontrollable variables that come with being human.

The problem is not the tool—it is the way we use it.

Standardized tests are not completely useless. As a very experienced teacher (the students I’ve taught number in the thousands now), I see the standardized tests as a helpful little added piece of information about students. If they score really low on a standardized measurement of their reading comprehension, it alerts me as a teacher to check in on that aspect of their learning. However, it DOES NOT tell me that their reading comprehension is necessarily bad, BECAUSE I know that the standardized measurement is extremely limited and can only give me a BLURRY SNAPSHOT of a student’s actually comprehension skills. It’s like the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle; there’s an inherent inaccuracy in its measurement of reality. Generally, when a kid scores below average or average or above average, it’s pretty much a good ESTIMATE of the general ability of a child. However, too often I’ve worked with students who score below average on reading comprehension but can share an insightful observation about a character’s development after reading an advanced classics book. They didn’t get to demonstrate that on the standardized test because it probably wasn’t one of the multiple-choice answer options. Further, kids can have bad days, test questions can have a bias towards middle class White American culture, and these standardized tests were never meant to tell us accurate information about individual students in the first place. It’s more useful as a measurement of general population of students than an accurate measurement of an individual student. It’s like trying to pinpoint a dust particle in a snowstorm.

Now, imagine kids, students, parents, principals, and school districts being held “accountable” for the test scores of their students. Wait, on second thought, don’t imagine. Let me tell you what happens. Since “accountability” hangs on the outcome of test scores, all positive reinforcement in terms of praise, recognition, grades, prestige and even lollipops and a smile are suddenly tied into motivating kids to get the best score possible on these standardized tests. Learn the RIGHT answer dictated by some unseen test maker, not the most thoughtfully constructed one that takes into consideration all the nuances of a dynamic reality and comes about from in-depth research, inquiry, and dialogue.

After a long academic year of learning all the right answers for a test, the kids get to top it all off with TWO WEEKS of continuous testing. That’s two weeks of NO LEARNING, JUST TESTING. Two weeks of teachers parroting from exactly scripted directions that must be read precisely the way it is on the paper, which means two weeks of NO INSTRUCTION. When I was a brand new teacher, I thought, “Wow, getting paid to sit here and administer this test is like the easiest and most brainless part of the school year.” You don’t get more dumbed down than that.

Luckily the reality is not as bleak as this (although some would argue otherwise), as there are excellent teachers that actually do provide a lot of quality instruction to students to learn complex concepts and skills, even despite the pressures, but can you see the amount of wasted time and energy that has been diverted from real learning because everything hangs on the standardized test results? And what about the not-so-excellent teachers? They could easily drill kids on simplistic standardized test-prep-only activities and be fully justified in doing so because the test score is the measure of quality education.

Okay, so I hope I have made it as clear as possible that the real demon behind standardized testing is our misuse of this tool and misinterpretation of the data it produces.

So what now? We can’t very well just have no accountability for our educational system. There are very real BAD teachers, and with the pay offered, it doesn’t exactly attract the best and the brightest. There are a lot of intellectually mediocre individuals working with our children every minute of every day. What can our educational system look like without standardized tests to whip everyone into shape?

False Products vs. True Products

There are a lot of answers to this problem, but let me present one rather simple one that I think can at least get us thinking in the right direction. I propose that we move towards an educational system that encourages students to produce true products instead of false products. False products are grades and test scores, extremely abstract, sterile, and inhumane representations of the real human child. True products are the sort of products that we expect from professionals. Instead of memorizing history facts for the test, students should be engaging in historical research and local history documentation. Instead of flash cards for science facts, they should be studying the ecosystems in their own backyards. Instead of writing for a state writing assessment, they should be writing books and news articles and publishing their work. Basically, all students should have the education reserved for only the most wealthy, gifted and privileged of our population. Given the opportunity to help guide students in their production of true products, teachers will be able to practice and train to become true master guides to their apprentices and not just parroting fools of pre-scripted tests.

At first glance, this sounds like an easier system, as if we’d be raising a generation of coddled babies who don’t know how to take the blow of a red “F” bleeding across the top of their paper. But let me assure you, this will be a HARDER system on all fronts. First of all, anyone who has put themselves out there as a writer will tell you that readers are harsh critics, especially young readers. And it’s not exactly easy defending your historical or scientific finds against the scrutiny and judgments of others.

The real world will be harsh enough on the true products of students. We don’t need to create fake harshness in the form of arbitrary grading systems and sterilized test scores. Our job should be to support the next generation as they learn how to deal with the real world first hand.

For Asian Pacific Americans and our model minority shackles, I feel the dangers of the standardized mind are doubly perilous. 5,000 years is a lot of baggage to carry, so let’s make sure that it becomes part of our experience and not part of our burden.

(Disclaimer: I totally took that last line from Jet Li’s Tai Chi Master movie.)

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