The Benefits of Standardized Failure

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Occasionally I experience an epiphany from unexpected quarters. This morning was one when my wife and I discussed the standardized test she must soon administer to the 9- and 10-year-olds in her fourth grade public school classroom.

She encounters many differences in her job between when she taught fourth grade over twenty years ago, prior to her resignation to parent our three sons full-time, and her return to teaching a couple years ago. One of the most frustrating is the advent of "school report cards" based on standardized tests.

My wife is not opposed to standards and evaluation of outcomes in educating students. This just isn’t the place for a long discussion delving into how evaluation might be successfully structured in the coercively funded environment of a socialized education model, much less the variety of approaches a true free market in educational services might yield. Let’s face it; if I knew how the latter of these might look, I’d be the ultimate educational entrepreneur (which I’m not).

Readers of LRC know how one-size-fits-all standardized testing is an alphabet soup of all the stupidities of command/control business models. Inevitably the teachers are being bent to teach to the test, classroom initiative is stifled, and the school board is considering district-wide changes (having nothing to do with actual learning) justified by the belief they’ll enhance test scores. It’s Taylorism’s "one best way" without the rationality-inducing discipline of profit/loss. No matter how deluded are the architects of the tests, their subsidiaries can’t go out of business.

It was during a discussion of the specific test questions where I suddenly realized what was really going on here.

While some of the math questions in the teacher’s practice manual were relatively simple, others involved elementary algebra (remember, these are 9- and 10-year-olds). The jaw-droppers were the "extended response" questions, where a child is given a single question with up to 55 minutes to provide a free-form explanation, possibly including drawings and mathematical rationale, for an answer.

Yes, you read that right. Think you might have found that a little overwhelming when you were in fourth grade?

I’ll get to that, but first let me boast for just one moment.

My sons are math whizzes.

Seriously, they are all one step short of extraordinary, having all gone to state math team finals (the math equivalent of the state football quarter- and semi-finals), and the two in college breezed through calculus courses that stumped other high schools’ valedictorians. (Okay, maybe this last is a bit of hyperbole, but I’m their father…what did you expect? They did get straight A’s while screwing up the curve for the rest of their classmates.) (I might add that this is quite a validation of my wife’s teaching qualifications, not to mention those of their superlative math team coach in high school.)

At 9 years of age, I doubt any of them could have answered half the questions in the teacher’s test booklet. My youngest, in fact, would have taken one look at one of the "extended response" questions (NOT the example in the PDF file on the state’s web site, which is easy), yawned, contemplated his finger nails, and spent the other 54 minutes staring out the window at the playground.

Could he have answered it?

Perhaps. That’s a BIG perhaps as it took me a little while to figure it out, and he said half his sophomore-year high school classmates today wouldn’t touch it. But why would he have bothered in fourth grade? What was in it for him?


So my wife is understandably anxious when she looks across the 24 kids in her class and figures that only the two or three most motivated and able students will have reached the abstract conceptual skills needed to analyze and answer the questions, and she must cross her fingers that they are encouraged by no more than their respect for her to do their best.

My wife, I might add, was the first and only teacher in the school to volunteer to participate in the elementary school version of the math team competitions that so engaged our own sons. She thus has quite a good idea of what push-the-envelope math skills are found among her students. As I said, maybe two or three kids…10%.

I asked myself, again and again. What does this mean? Why would the education bureaucrats in Springfield construct a test for little kids, many of whom still struggle with the basics, that looks more like a math team competition test intended to produce scores in the 50—75% range even among the very brightest students?

Are they setting the schools up…to fail?

[Here’s where the light bulb flickered on above my head. See if it does for you, too, when you ask if there’s some potential benefit for school bureaucrats to promote a widespread recognition that the schools in their charge are failing. Maybe I should add that in Illinois there’s a very powerful coalition that’s trying to get a state income tax increase passed to stuff the budgets of public school administrators & unions and cut out the last vestiges of local restraint via property tax limits.]

You bet.

I think among the many motivations for the tests is that they’re trying to establish a school crisis that demands the state income tax be raised from 3% to 4% or more (at least a massive 33% increase!!).

Call me cynical, but now I’m awaiting the press releases and the newspaper editorials. After all, the county where I live got voters to approve an additional 1% sales tax (which was a whopping 16% increase in the tax rate) to fund a new jail (and all sorts of other boondoggles now surfacing) by telling people it would only cost them a penny ("a penny for safety").

How many public school alumni voted for it because they couldn’t do the math?

Maybe that, too, is the point.

February 21, 2007

David Calderwood [send him mail] a businessman, artist, and author of the novel Revolutionary Language, selected January 2000 Freedom Book of the Month at

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