Standardized Tests as Soul Deadening Exercises


I’ve been taking a look at the GRE lately, as I consider graduate school as a potential future direction. The GRE, as far as I can tell, is just the SAT with more writing involved. And just like the SAT, the testing seems to have nothing to do with your intelligence, grasp of basic subjects such as grammar or math, or with any kind of general understanding of anything real at all—it is simply to test your endurance and stamina for 3+ hours of wading through questions designed to numb your soul and trick you into being misled by hazy wording or vague comparisons. It’s like all it is really testing is your ability to study and take that specific test. It has no application in reality, other than garnering you a score so you can apply to expensive schools. It does not demonstrate your intelligence nor capability to achieve.

What is it with our nation’s obsession with standardized tests? The very fact that they are standardized ensures immediately that they will have no relevance for anything other than gauging how much a student is capable of sifting through academic bullshit. Because that’s all it is—academic bullshit. I don’t think the test is hard at all, nor did I think the SAT was hard either. It’s just so tedious and dry that it deadens your brain and soul to the point that you just stop caring a third of the way through the exam and stop applying yourself to it at all. At least, that’s my problem with these tests. I can score adequately on them, but I don’t apply myself enough to score excellently. I have no interest in “studying” for this test. I have no interest in taking bullshit classes on taking a bullshit exam. What a waste of time, in my opinion. This is time that can be spent actually learning something useful, such as how to make a seed ball, making your forehand topspin stronger in Wii Sports tennis, or how to be mounted by a loa and eat hot coals.

Oh sure, I’m going to touch up my math a little bit, because I never actually did learn any math in school. I never considered it worthy of my attention. When I worked as an instructional aide at a high school, and I had to work with students in algebra and geometry, and demonstrate to them how to do it, I suddenly discovered that math wasn’t very hard at all. So I think that I’m OK, if I go over all the basic stuff that I was supposed to have learned in elementary school. But that’s all the studying I can handle. I have never been able to study anything that I have no interest in. In college, I discovered that when I had to take classes that I could care less about, such as a general biology course, all I had to do was buy the reader the night before the final and flip through it. Then it was fresh on my mind, and I could score adequately on the final enough to pass the course, without having attended any more than 2 or 3 classes. See, that’s what I call intelligence. But I don’t think that most graduate schools would agree, unfortunately.

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Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

22 thoughts on “Standardized Tests as Soul Deadening Exercises”

  1. I am surprised that you can’t find a more progressive institution where assessment can be negotiated. This model of assessment is based on the assumption that context-free knowledge is possible and desirable.

  2. I’m currently studying for the GRE as well, and I hear ya’ about the standardized bullshit. Just one more hoop to jump through. And I was just reading for the first time the other day about making seed balls. Quinky-dink.

  3. The country is obsessed with standardized testing in a big way. My mom is a high school teacher and all she hears about is how to make the kids to well on the standarized test. I also was going to take the GRE but decided not to go to Graduate school so I dodged that bullet. Good luck though!

  4. As someone who recently took the GRE, did adequately, and managed to get into four of five graduate schools I applied to, I can tell you that they are not nearly as important as the SATs were and that, assuming you’re capable and talented, which you seem to be, you should have no trouble doing exactly as I have done.

    Good luck, and good blog.

    ps: i basically flunked the math section and things still turned out okay.

  5. Thanks for the vote of confidence, klepto. Sometimes it almost seems like these tests and requirements are actually structured simply to make you feel inadequate, in order to discourage excessive applicants.

  6. I like the way the blogger referred to standardized tests as “soul deadening.” Carl Jung in his book, The Undiscovered Self, deals with this subject matter as well. He talks about statistical man and the loss of a soul for the sake of standardization in all of its various forms. I just paid 160 dollars to take the stupid GRE and I hated it completely. I found it dehumanizing and insulting, and totally uninspiring and unreflective of who I am as a person. All of this, just to know if I can survive graduate school? Such a scam. Rest assured, it has more to do with getting us all in lock step and making us fit for the New World Order. Yes, it’s bullshit, pure and simple.

  7. William, thanks for your input. Congratulations on making it through the other side!

    I’m now in a strange position in relation to standardized tests, in that I’ve become a public school teacher, so half of my year is spent trying to prepare my students for them. And while I still very much think that the tests are bullshit (especially since my students with special needs consistently underperform on them) I recognize that we need to have some form of accountability in order to gauge the effectiveness of teachers, schools, and whether students are learning or not.

    These tests certainly do suck, but they also can convey, over time, whether students are learning or not, however vaguely.

    But the question is not whether or not we should have standardized tests, but whether or not we can design more effective forms of individualized testing, that can accurately demonstrate student knowledge and understanding, without the testing itself being a dehumanizing experience.

  8. In my opinion, the whole education system is topsy-turvy. Standardized tests are bullshit and it doesn’t matter what one will do to try to make them better. The problem is that they are dehumanizing and they will always be. They will never be able to test the things that matter the most, no matter what we do to them, because the root of the problem is still there. Standardizing is the problem. We don’t need teachers in the traditional sense either. What we need is a non-directive approach to teaching. We need people who can guide others as they learn and who are able to have respect for the individual autonomy of other human beings. People need more freedom to learn. Otherwise they just end up getting run through programs and having things shoved at them that they can’t remember later on when they need to. So much for the quality of education. It’s time to give people more freedom, not less, by perpetuating the bullshit.

  9. I agree with you on a theoretical level, William. A non-directive approach to teaching sounds great! But how does one implement such an approach?

    Again, we are in complete agreement regarding standardized tests as bullshit. That’s why I wrote the original post, after all. However, what I do not believe is bullshit is the attempt to create a system of accountability within education. Unfortunately, at the moment, standardized testing–part of the standards based reform movement–provides our sole somewhat credible source unto this data in a fairly cost effective manner.

    So in your model of education, for example, how can we tell whether a relatively autonomous student is really learning to the best of their capability? What product do we use to determine their understanding? In fact, if we give too much autonomy, do individuals really feel compelled to learn at all?

    I’m playing devil’s advocate, of course. I’m truly interested in your responses!

  10. Well, I’m not an educator like you are, so I admit that I probably don’t know as much about that world as you do. What I am trying to do with graduate school is to become a counselor. I prefer the humanistic approach to this and I believe that as individuals we are all “essentially positive” at our core. We all have basic goodness deep within no matter how misled, screwed up or confused we might appear to be on the surface. We all have what Carl Rogers refers to as an “actualizing tendency.”

    That’s why I think the non-directive approach to education could work really well for a lot of people. Because what people really want from each other is respect and to be treated with dignity as individuals. If we can have respect for each others’ autonomy what we end up with are individuals becoming who they most truly are at their core. When we are allowed to become the person we really are, rather than the person everyone else wants us to be, we become motivated to do what serves us individually and our lives have more meaning, and we are able to function far more efficiently as organisms. Then we in turn contribute to society in ways that are wholesome and life-affirming.

    If you are not familiar with the psychologist, Carl Rogers, you might like to look at what he spent his whole life developing and working with. If you want to know how to do non-directive education, he would be your source.

    As for accountability, well, what is that, really? And how would that look in a different system altogether. Isn’t it now just standing water? Alan Watts once said that if we try to catch the river in a bucket we are doing the impossible, because the nature of a river is to flow. In the bucket, it is no more than a stagnant pool.

    We can tell whether a relatively autonomous student is learning because we can see it in their enthusiasm, and in what they volunteer to contribute as we empower them to be the one unique individual that they came into this world to be. Can you teach a flower to grow beautifully or according to its true design? No, but you can water it and give it sunshine and watch it do just that. But be careful, the moment you start to control the outcome, it will wither.

  11. William, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve looked over the information you provided, and I am contemplating a response that will do justice to the depth of thought presented here. I’m swamped with stuff at this particular moment, so I will try to give you my thoughts by the end of the week! Thanks for your input!

  12. William, first of all, thank you for providing the links to further information, which did a great deal to expand Rogers’ principals and approach to education. I may even use some of his material in a graduate course I am taking right now, where I am examining how (and what) methods of self-control I use and learn in the face of behavioral problems can be used to explicitly model and teach these same self-management strategies to my students.

    I agree with all of the principals set out by Rogers, and I completely support the role of a teacher as a facilitator of learning. However, I view this approach as simply one of many strategies that I can wield in my toolkit. Gently prodding students towards their self-actualizing tendency is ideal in most circumstances. However, I believe that sometimes more authoritarian styles of teaching are called for, depending upon the students, the situation, and the material.

    One of the things I continually thought of while reading the article about Tenenbaum’s experience in Rogers’ classroom was that such an approach to teaching can only be most effective in the kind of setting where he was operating. I would have loved to have seen him trying to do that with my students. If I sat back and let the classroom run itself, I would have physical confrontations occurring every few minutes. As a facilitator of learning, I have to be directly involved in managing and putting out crises situations with my students.

    I agree with the premise that all human beings have a self-actualizing tendency, and that this growth should be fostered and nurtured. However, what I think must also must be recognized is that this tendency can be stunted and rendered pathological by circumstances such as the environment in which a student lives and has been reared.

    You gave an example of a flower, and how you can’t teach a flower to grow. Certainly not, and I wouldn’t argue that point. But you also can’t water a flower and expect it to grow when it grows up in soil that is bereft of sustenance or polluted with toxins.

    With such flowers, your goal as a teacher is not simply to sit back and nurture the natural growth of the flower, because this is not guaranteed to happen. Your goal is first and foremost to intervene. And to do this, you have to get down and dirty with the soil, you have to act, you have to direct, you have to actively transform.

    There are other ideas I would love to discuss here as well, such as the idea that deeper levels of cognition cannot be achieved without core knowledge and facts, and how this may temper the non-directive approach in some areas.

    But I want to bring it back to the idea of standardized testing and accountability. I want to point out that in the article you provided about Rogers’, there is solid data and research to support the claims and principals that Rogers made (and there has been significant research since that supports these ideas as well). And if what Rogers is saying is true, than he is in a sense providing standards by which we can base our decisions upon as educators or counselors. If we can agree to these values and principals as standards, and use them by which to establish goals and target towards progress, than we must ask ourselves how we can measure this progress. We could say, well, we will look at the accumulation of student products, whether that be art, writings, math examples, etc. And if we look at these products, how can we evaluate them according to our standards?

    Hence, standardized testing. The problem with our current forms of standardized testing, which I think we can both agree upon, is that it doesn’t really demonstrate true knowledge and understanding.

  13. Bubbler,

    Glad that you were able to look over that material. Thanks for your very thoughtful response. I can certainly understand your position when I consider that you are a teacher and you are involved in the educational system and you have to work with things the way they are. I respect that you are a mindful educator. We sure could use much more of that.

    Getting back to standardized tests, I personally don’t think we should be subjected to them at all. I guess my position on this is that I am just simply concerned about the loss of personal autonomy, which I see is like a disease running rampant everywhere I look.

    I have been working toward self-actualization for quite a long time (a never ending process) and I just keep coming back to the importance of truly being who I am and of personal freedom. That’s basically it for me. So, of course, I would see any attempt to standardize what humans do as a threat to that autonomy.

    I think there is a major difference in the “standards” that Rogers delineates which are basic to every human being and the standards that are imposed upon us by those who we are many degrees removed from each of us, i.e., the national level and beyond.

    Forced unity never worked in the past. People rise up when they feel they are being threatened at their core as individuals. Hopefully all this standardizing madness won’t have to get too severe before more people have a chance to wake up to what is really going on with that.

    Next thing they will want to do is to standardize consciousness. They will say that we all must bow down to the same god and in the same manner and that god will be some lone individual or oligarchy and the statists and their statisticians will be the ones who benefit because they are the ones who control everything. Everything we do and say will belong to the state and they will always be reminding us of the Almighty Standard, and of how we should be thankful we have such a standard to live by, but it will be one that is totally foreign to us and we will just have to take our medication and shut up if we don’t like it, and be the good little law abiding data points that they have created us to be. We will be expected to “measure up” and to completely surrender our souls in ways we can not now imagine, all for the sake of the so called common good.

    What a wild scenario that is, which is even Orwellian, and as far out as that might seem it is precisely what I believe the controllers are up to, even if only on a subconscious level. So yes, you are right, standardized testing is absolutely soul deadening.

  14. Wow! Did I say all that? It’s a bit of a contorted ramble, but I think you get the message. I have a feeling I am preaching to the choir though.

    You know, you have some interesting ideas about evaluating the accumulation of student products on the basis of Rogerian standards (if I am hearing you correctly). I’m not sure though what to say about that part of what you’ve mentioned since I haven’t a clue what goes on in the world of education. I think what Rogers has mentioned though about how to regard others comes back to how we regard ourselves while we are in relationship with others, whether that be in counseling or in the class room (using the non-directive model).

    There is another psychologist by the name of Carl Jung who has put much thought into this issue of individuality vs submission to the state. If you don’t mind I will leave you with this quote from Jung’s, The Undiscovered Self. It was written many years ago but I feel that it still applies and even more so in this day and age:

    “The bigger the crowd the more negligible the individual becomes. But if the individual, overwhelmed by the sense of his own puniness and impotence, should feel that his life has lost its meaning–which, after all, is not identical with public welfare and higher standards of living–then he is already on the road to State slavery and, without knowing or wanting it, has become its proselyte. The man who looks only outside and quails before the big battalions has nothing with which to combat the evidence of his senses and his reason. But that is just what is happening today: we are all fascinated and overawed by statistical truths and large numbers and are daily apprised of the nullity and futility of the individual personality, since it is not represented and personified by any mass organization. Conversely, those personages who strut about on the world stage and whose voices are heard far and wide seem, to the uncritical public, to be borne along on some mass movement or on the tide of public opinion and for this reason are either applauded or execrated. Since mass suggestion plays the predominant role here, it remains a moot point whether their message is their own, for which they are personally responsible, or whether they merely function as a megaphone for collective opinion.”

    I don’t know where this takes the discussion but I hope it will at least contribute something of significance.

  15. Great article, thanks. Definitely something that vibes with the sense of assessment that I’ve gotten from working with students receiving special education services. Due to their learning disabilities, they can be pretty hard to rank according to standardized methods, given that they struggle in all basic areas, and the reasons why aren’t always black and white. I’ve found it more helpful to write short narratives after assessing them using traditional methods, and I refer to these narratives much more frequently than to the statistical data I’ve gathered.

    I understand the fear you have with the movement towards standardization and share it to a certain degree. However, I also believe that practically speaking, standards are necessary. The concern for me is not standardization itself, but rather the values and goals we use to set these standards.

    If the purpose of our standards is to create a monocultural mass of consumers, then I would be just as opposed to it (and often am opposed). But if the purpose of our standards is to ensure maximum personal growth, empowerment, and mobility as an adult in society, then I am all for it.
    See, standards not only come from the authoritarian directive of enforcement and stricture; they also can serve as a protection of individual rights and freedoms.

    Standards can be called another name: we can call them goals. They are the goals that guide teachers to create their curriculum, knowing what is expected for their children to learn.

    The problem has been not that there are standards; the problem is that the standards are not “standard” across a national level, and some are abysmal, while others are ridiculously stringent. Another problem is that standards, in conjunction with their accompanying state tests, often end up having the effect of forcing teachers to stuff topic after topic down students’ throats without much depth of learning taking place, and thus “teaching to the test.”

    Look, I’m all for freedom of expression and creativity, and I believe that these need to be incorporated into the classroom on a much greater level. However, I don’t think the way we get to this increase in individual expression in a classroom is by removing standards and testing. I believe that the way, conversely, is by incorporating standards that explicitly recognize this need for creativity and expression, and crafting testing that more accurately gauges an individual’s strengths and capability, as opposed to rote comprehension.

    Because of our obsession with data, we have lost sight of the reality that hard data only reflects the tip of the iceberg of a given student’s capability and achievement. We need data of the type that Maya Wilson discussed in the interview you provided: presented in narrative format, personalized, and transformative.

    But I don’t think that means that all data collecting is irrelevant or innately misdirected. It’s simply a tool to gather certain types of information, and should be recognized for its limitations. Hard data provides a very slim window into specific information that can yet provide a gauge of whether real learning is taking place. And research using this data can clue us into what teaching strategies are really effective and which are not.

    Because the fact is that the data supports the method of instruction that Rogers discussed. Students need to be engaged, they need to have buy-in to the material, and they need to have the kind of spontaneous communication, empathy, and creative problem-solving skills that would occur in such a classroom to succeed in a knowledge work driven world.

    We just need to get our standards readjusted to focus on that instead of on the desperate drive to drum up funding for schools and short-term goodwill for the campaigns of politicians and administrations!

  16. Well, I actually agree with just about everything you said. I’m not against standards either. I’m against standards as they are being used at this time, especially in the arena of testing. I majored in English when I was an undergraduate, so like the writer in the article I posted, I have a certain sensitivity toward anything that might threaten to choke off a person’s creativity and desire to be authentic. Standardizing can certainly do that.

    And yes, you are right, we do need to get our standards readjusted. I would just say that instead of readjusting, we should throw them out completely and get some new ones. In effect though, we are saying the same thing.

    What you said about getting away from that “desperate drive to drum up funding for schools and short term good will for the campaigns of politicians and administrations” is certainly true. We do need to focus more on what is genuine and what is really at the heart of things.

    I think there is a movement growing and spreading though that is underneath all of that political foofaraw and that seeks to readjust and redesign whatever is not working in spite of how hard and heavy it appears to be on the surface. That is just my feeling. I think we’re part of that. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  17. It’s funny, I was just reading this post and it’s accompanying comments (thanks to William for a great discussion!), and I realized that some of the very things we’d been talking about are coming to pass to a certain extent. We now have nationally accepted standards that push towards higher order critical and creative thinking skills, the Common Core State Standards, and as a result of these standards, we are moving towards a new world of assessment. It remains to be seen whether these assessments will just be another form of pure tortuous bullshit or not, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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