A Waste of Time

Driving my middle daughter home from high school today, she happened to mention the state tests that she—and all her classmates—are required to take. They are called the STAR tests, and they take a total of 12 hours spread over three days. They have been mandated by our benevolent—and incompetent—rulers in Washington DC and Sacramento. The purpose of these tests is to determine how well the teachers are doing in instructing the children. These tests are required a set points in grade school, middle school, and high school. The politicians who instigated these tests, the news media, and the critics of public education all wave these tests about in the air as proof that the schools are bad, that the teachers are bad, and that what we desperately need are more tests and more accountability, and firing a bunch of teachers.

Both my daughter and I are very puzzled by these tests. As is my wife, a third grade public school teacher who every year has to give these tests and is made to feel bad if the students don’t show improvement from the previous year’s crop of test takers.

What’s our puzzle over these tests?

Very simple: the tests do not affect the students taking them in any way whatsoever—and the students know that. They are not graded, they receive no rewards or punishments, not benefit or loss for what their scores might be on these tests. It doesn’t affect whether they graduate, the colleges don’t ask about the scores, and neither do any employers. The tests are utterly without consequence for the ones who are taking the tests. ALL the tests are for the students is 12 hours of doing the thing that they dislike just about the most of anything they are ever forced to do.

Guess what? Many students, particularly at the middle school and high school level, just mark their tests (which are all multiple choice, true false sorts of things) randomly. The tests don’t affect them, and so they treat them as the waste of their time that they are.

So my puzzlement with these tests mandated by the wise bureaucrats and politicians in Sacramento and Washington DC is simple: what exactly do they realistically expect to learn from these tests? That children, like adults, don’t much care to dig holes and then fill them up again? That doing something pointless is…pointless? That they are testing nothing and all and cannot possibly learn anything at all meaningful from these tests?

The tests are simply good politics for the politicians, to make them look like they care about education and are doing something. They have good intentions, after all. The fact that they are utterly useless seems to matter not at all to either them, the critics of public education, or the news critters and pundits. No one seems to notice that the emperor has no clothes.

If you want to really know how well the children are learning in school, guess what? Every so often the teachers give out these things called grade cards, which present the average of the grades earned over the course of weeks and months on assignments, quizzes and tests that actually matter and affect the children. These grade cards are what the colleges pay attention to. It is these grade cards that are of interest to employers. And, surprise, surprise, it is the grade cards that the children are concerned with—assuming that they have been taught to care by parents that care.

The only people for whom the grade cards don’t seem to matter are our feckless politicians and bureaucrats—and the journalists and pundits that are supposedly knowledgeable and caring. They think the meaningless tests are somehow meaningful. Perhaps they remind them of themselves.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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