School Watch: Intrusive Federal Testing


June 1, 1995

In Kentucky, a recent social-studies test question included a picture of a homeless person lying on a sidewalk next to the gutter. Fourth graders were questioned as to what should be done to help the homeless. The teacher’s scoring guide gave the highest mark to the pupil who answered, “Some of them even have to sleep in garbage cans to keep warm and the rich people just kick them around. . . .” Guess why the next to lowest score was given to the pupil who said, “Build houses for people like that because God made them he didn’t mean for them to die.”

Now, in matters of the intellect, this country is slow to anger. Yet, in face of the new curriculum standards foisted on America’s children by the federal government, its outrage has been swift and sharp. The national history standards, for instance, have been widely denounced.

The nation, however, has yet to awaken to the yet more insidious “other half” of this curricular fiasco, namely, federalized testing. The drive to standardize testing is proceeding on two fronts:

Federal legislation now requires states to “align” their tests with state curriculum and performance standards, which in turn must conform with the new national curriculum and performance standards — in order to receive federal education funds. Thus, federal “standardization” of education is de facto mandated and not “voluntary” as claimed.

State assessment tests of dubious academic merit have been unobtrusively introduced. About twice as expensive as traditional achievement tests, they are now administered in at least thirty-eight states. But they are actually spawned and disseminated by a grid of federal agencies under the control of the Departments of Education and, note, Labor; the latter interlock with state departments of education and several private organizations, receiving both federal and, in some cases, foundation funds.

The thrust of this sprawling ganglion, clearly, is to nationalize education. Thus the stated purpose of the New Standards, an important contributor in this grand design, is to develop “a national examination system” and a “National Examination Board [for judging] whether any given examination meets the national standard. . . .”

The substance of these (federal) state tests has been fiercely contested, especially by parents. Like the national curriculum standards, they have been criticized as academically deficient, psychologically manipulative, and ideologically biased.

The general public’s ignorance of the radically nontraditional nature of these tests appears to be no accident. Allegedly to prevent cheating and maintain statistical integrity, they are guarded with utmost strictness by the Educational Testing Service, the most prominent of the private companies under lucrative contract to the federal government to distribute and collect tests in schools.

Parents and even elected officials have been doggedly refused permission to see the tests. A mother, Anita Hoge of Pennsylvania, waged a long struggle to review one such test, which her ninth grade son described as “the weirdest test in the world” and which she deemed more concerned with his personal profile than with academics. It included such items as : “The prospect of working most of my adult life depresses me. Check `yes,’ `no,’ or ‘sometimes.'”

The tests typically require pupils to fill out information sheets concerning their nationality, domicile, parental status, etc. These surveys also often contain questions such as: “Are you routinely left at home without adults being there? Have you ever thought about killing yourself? Have you ever worried about your birth father’s drinking too much or using drugs? Have you ever been touched sexually by anyone (adult or young person) in a way that you felt was inappropriate? Are you expected to do chores and help out at home?”

Moreover, such personal information is stored in government databases. In an age of instant, universal electronic communication, the manner in which government may use such data deserves, not only the utmost public scrutiny, but a congressional investigation.

It is sobering to consider that teachers will tend naturally to adapt their lessons to the new psychometric test items, such as the following:

1) Fourth graders were given “reading open-response questions” relating to a story entitled “Your Dad Is a Wimp.” The two highest scores went to pupils who wrote it would be “fun” to be part of a family like that of the character Jesse, whose mother was away at work but whose father stayed at home cooking. The lowest score was given to a pupil who responded that he would not like to live with Jesse’s family: “No. Because I’m happy with my family.”

2) Eighth graders read excerpts from Richard Wright’s Black Boy, wherein a poor, hungry, fatherless boy is locked out of his home by his mother until he can bring home groceries, preyed upon by neighborhood hoodlums, e.g., “In blind fear I let the stick fly, feeling it crack against a boy’s skull. . . then another.” Pupils were asked to express “opinions and feelings” about the reading and then follow instructions for “group work,” e.g., “List conflicts between some teenagers and their parents. Share your list with your group.” Higher scores were recommended for pupils who “revise. . . [their initial] views” on parental behavior, and lower scores for “superficial” answers, i.e., those involving views which held firm as “activities” progressed.

3) Pupils were asked to read a story about a girl and her brother who were alone on an island and consequently to “think about a time when you or a family member were left alone or lost. . . Draw a picture of this experience. . . describe your feelings and emotions. . . Draw a picture of a special place you’d like to go without parental supervision. . . List reasons why you should be allowed to go alone and reasons why your parents wouldn’t let you go alone. . . In your group. . . think of problems families have. . . .”

4) Pupils were asked to solve a math problem concerning a corn farmer named Cyrus Nelson. They were then asked to speculate in written form on the price of corn and make recommendations regarding how Nelson might increase his farm’s profit. The scoring guide recommended lowering pupils’ scores for even mentioning herbicides or pesticides. Pupils who gave the wrong math answer were still given a partially correct score for not referring to such chemicals.

The new testing standards — clones of the federal curriculum standards — imply extreme rejection of the traditional vision of schooling. They offend by aiming high at social transformation and low at academic quality. Solution? Obliterate all the government legislation and bodies — with their appendages — from whence stems such educational malpractice.


  • Candace de Russy

    Candace de Russy is a nationally recognized scholar on education and cultural issues and an Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute.

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