Mel's Musings: Why Johnny can’t test

Mel Olson
Mel Olson

Kids aren’t stupid; of course they sometimes do dumb things due to ignorance, immaturity and peer pressure.

However, they know the tests that measure their school’s competence have no meaning for and no value to them. Their scores do little to gain them college admission or scholarships. Their achievement on state mandated standardized tests doesn’t change their class rank nor does it impact their high school graduation.

The tests don’t improve or diminish their academic grades or impact the honor roll. These exams won’t get them into or keep them out of the National Honor Society. Often the skills measured, especially in math, are such that no regular person would use them either in daily life or on the job rendering the test just an academic exercise, literally. These evaluations are high stakes only for the institution and meaningless to the population taking them.

That is the fundamental problem with the accountability testing that usually takes place in schools around this time of year.

Another issue is that the test content changes regularly. That makes year-to-year comparisons nearly impossible in any applicable way. Various groups of kids perform differently, too; it’s called the “cohort effect”. You may have more high achievers this year or, in small schools especially, the number and types of kids who move in and out of your district and take the test can materially affect scores on an annual basis as well.


Schools gear their curriculum to the present test so when a newer version comes out it may not be reflective of the concepts currently being taught. It’s not teaching to the test nor is it gaming the system. It’s simply adapting to reality. However it does make relevant appraisals of a school’s academic performance over the long term problematic.

In 1983 A Nation At Risk report came out lamenting the quality of American education documenting how we were lagging behind other countries. This brought about the core curriculum, which really hasn’t changed much in terms of graduation requirements since then. It also introduced the idea of highly qualified teachers, which was implemented more fully by No Child Left Behind 20 years later.

American education is not as good vis-à-vis other nations as it was comparatively in the past for many reasons; it’s not that our education got worse it’s other countries’ education systems got better, opportunities for American women opened up so that the female teacher of 1970 is the doctor or lawyer of today, we are now testing kids on concepts that used to be reserved for college or even graduate school and students know the tests don’t matter in any real-world way to them etc.

Mitchell’s scores have been falling for these reasons and because of conscious policy decisions implemented by local educational leaders. They’ve opted for cheaper internet offerings allowing teenagers, many who have a “get through it” rather than “learn the most from it” attitude, to “teach themselves” with predictable results.

Some online offerings beggar belief such as speech and physical education. Other courses are set up so students can simply screen shot and retake a test without actually doing the work. Some “live” instruction is farmed out to instructors at institutions other than MHS, who I’m sure do fine work but also are not subject to Mitchell’s administration and thus are impervious to the directives of the district and imperatives that state testing might require. Mitchell has also made a deliberate choice to shift its focus from more esoteric education to training. Schooling in Mitchell is now much more about life and job skills.

The coronavirus outbreak has meant that standardized testing may not take place at all anywhere this year; their cancellation is no great loss. Schools should be held answerable for concepts and skills that are practical and universal for all students instead of being held accountable for abstruse or arcane notions applicable only to a very few.

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