Government education is quite adept at suppressing the intellectual diversity of its students. Amongst the most egregious of its practices is high-stakes testing. Its effects, both seen and unseen are simply disastrous. Before evaluating these consequences, it is worth understanding why the state resorts to them at all.
Accountability in Government Education
There isn't a shortage of justifications for high-stakes testing in the realm of government education. In fact, the motives given are merited. Measuring student achievement, informing parents of a student's progress, and holding educators accountable are all valid needs. But why must the state resort to high-stakes testing to fulfill these needs when private schools flourish without them? A fundamental difference is the degree to which parents are empowered to guide their child's educational destiny and the accountability that results.
In government education, compulsory-schooling laws force a student to attend the school he's zoned to. Aside from seeking private alternatives, of which diversity and supply are artificially depressed, parental ability to “vote with their feet” is restricted. At best, a child might be able to transfer to another school within the same district after clearing myriad bureaucratic hurdles. The difference in quality, however, is often negligible. In effect, the legal monopoly that is granted to government schools blinds them to the demands of their customers–students and parents. Regardless of effectiveness, demand will remain artificially strong for a school's services and funding will remain.
It follows then that parents lack a meaningful mechanism to hold schools accountable. This void can only be filled through some contrived bureaucratic scheme where direct accountability (i.e. parents to educators) is replaced by layers of rule-makers who are furthest removed from the classroom. In such a system, the federal bureaucrat attempts to hold the state bureaucrat accountable, the state bureaucrat attempts to hold the district administrator accountable, and finally — the district administrator attempts to hold school leaders accountable. Parents, in their role as consumers of education, are mostly marginalized.
In seeking accountability, though, a bureaucrat is on a fool’s errand. As Mises stated, bureaucratic management is management of affairs which cannot be checked by economic calculation. In the case of education, it is impossible for a bureaucrat to effectively evaluate the most critical outcome: the extent to which student's unique faculties are optimized. Only few possess such intimate knowledge and, certainly, a complete stranger to a child is not one of them. The course of instruction delivered and the systems used to measure its outcomes must be homogenized.
The State's Solution
A bureaucracy is incapable of delivering an optimal course of instruction for each student, so generalized learning-standards must be applied to the masses. These standards are inherently flawed. No committee of experts, regardless of skill and pedigree, can devise a single set of standards to effectively meet the needs of millions of diverse minds. What is optimal for Doug might be detrimental to Christopher, ad infinitum.
It follows then that any accountability system implemented in such a system must also be flawed, as measuring a student against an arbitrary standard is a fruitless endeavor. It should be rather unsurprising then that government education is in a perpetual state of crisis and reform. Look no further that the frequency with which learning standards and accountability systems are upheaved — there are common-sense reasons armies of state-technocrats can never quite "get it right". What is hailed today will be denounced tomorrow.
Nevertheless, the accountability mirage continues to tempt politicians and so-called reformers. In the case of No Child Left Behind, rigorous standards and high-stakes test were supposed to deliver accountability and improved performance. States were forced to devise and implement elaborate testing regimens or else risk losing federal funding. The result of this political circustry has been a culture of ad nauseum testing.
In Texas, for example, students in government schools must successfully pass a regimen of twelve End of Course exams in order to graduate. This, of course, doesn't include the numerous exams they’re forced to take in grades 3-8. Other states have reached even greater levels of absurdity — at least 25 require one or more formal assessments during kindergarten in an effort to project college and career readiness.
With the advent of the Common Core Standards, it appears the practice of high-stakes testing will only become increasingly more intrusive in American classrooms. Any perceived benefits of this practice are greatly overshadowed by its real and detrimental effects.
The Effects of High-Stakes Testing
At the heart of high-stakes testing is central planning. Centralized control over what a child is tested on is no less ruinous than similar interventions in other policy matters (e.g. foot shortages in the Soviet Union). The very existence of high-stakes tests, and their associated carrots and sticks, clearly establish whom educators are accountable to. As Walter Block and Jerry Goolsby explain:
With limited resources and time, schools eventually come to serve the designers of standardized tests and the educational bureaucrats who enforce the punishments and rewards that accompany performance, rather than the community or consumers who pay to have their children educated. With these high stakes tests, school boards, principals and teachers come to understand that there is a single measure of performance upon which they will be ultimately and solely judged.
Naturally, high-stakes tests incentivize an educator to demonstrate professional competency by driving performance on these assessments. It is no longer his mission to discover and maximize the unique abilities of each student; he is instead charged with discovering ways to maximize the number of students who meet the state's arbitrary standards. Since there is only a single measurement for every student, each must be treated equally; a perverse equality that arrogantly disregards individual needs and interests.
In this system of education, educators focus chiefly on the standards they're responsible for (i.e. teaching to the test). There is little tolerance for deviating from the prescribed measurements. The absence of high-stakes tests for subjects such as business, art, and economics ultimately results in fewer resources being devoted to them. Instead, tested subjects are given more time, money, and often the brightest teachers. It is clear that any student whose faculties are well-suited to the non-tested subjects is being served sub-optimally.
Additionally, since all students are measured against an arbitrary benchmark of standards, an optimal outcome of test results does not exist. An educator might set a goal to exceed the state average or perhaps select a number that "sounds good" to strive toward (e.g. 90% of students passing). To meet this goal, he must homogenize the pace and rigor of content and focus his attention on students at the margin — leaving the least adept frustrated and the most talented bored. A litany of modified assessments is made available in a superficial attempt to accommodate individual needs. But they too are not exempt from the fundamental problem of trying to serve a mass of heterogeneous individuals — the alternative exams are still general in nature.
High-stakes testing also has periphery effects that are mostly unseen in the public-eye. District and school administrators are forced to adhere to esoteric rules and procedures related to testing. Myriad hours are spent reviewing complex manuals, attending mandatory training sessions, and implementing elaborate testing procedures. Valuable resources that have no discernible impact on educational outcomes are wasted and time spent teaching is replaced with weeks of test prep and days of actual testing.
Implicitly, each student is taught that success in life equates to meeting someone else's standards of excellence, which can be neatly summarized with a few test scores annually. It doesn't matter if he is financially literate, understands how to conduct a job-search, or possesses other skills that are essential to adult-life. So long as he meets the state's arbitrary standards by passing its tests, he is celebrated as "proficient" or shamed as "below basic" — a modern-day scarlet letter of intellectual prowess.
Lastly, it is worth addressing what is perhaps the strongest defense of high-stakes testing: There are basic skills that are necessary for living a productive life and centralized standards act as a quality-control mechanism. In this sense, high-stakes testing is a tool to measure the development of skills that should be common to all students.
There is, in fact, some truth in this. The absence of critical skills, such as literacy, severely restricts opportunities for advancing career and personal-life alike. The problem, though, is that a uniform (i.e. can be applied to every child), non-arbitrary limit to the depth and breadth of these skills does not exist. At what point does a student receive enough mathematical instruction? Should every student study physics? In a fantasy world characterized by homogeneity and the absence of opportunity costs, these questions might not matter. In reality, though, students are infinitely diverse. A promising craftsman or a budding entrepreneur likely isn't maximizing his potential studying calculus. Of course, this problem isn't characterized by one or two courses — it's compounded over the many years in which a student receives a generalized education. The intersection of basic and unnecessary is reached long before high school graduation and is quite different for each student.
A First Step toward an Intellectually Diverse System
In recent years, the education policy topic du jour has been the merits of State vs. Common Core standards. But whether a student in Location A should be receiving the same course of instruction as a student in Location B is immaterial. It should instead be debated whether or not a student should have a centrally-proscribed system of instruction at all. Most would correctly scoff at the idea of providing the same workout regimen to an NFL lineman, Olympic swimmer, and elite marathon runner; yet curiously, in the realm of education, this is precisely what is done without a hint of inhibition. Students are given the same type of education based solely on age, an utter affront to both nature and common-sense.
So what can be done?
The ultimate aim of education is to satisfy the unique demands of an individual student. This is what should be striven toward. The more that bureaucratic means are relied upon to deliver this, however, the more spectacularly it will fail. No elaborate plan or policy, regardless of resources and political will, can deliver a demand-driven education to each student; in fact, it will fail to deliver this to any student by design.
The ubiquity of high-stakes testing is merely a symptom increasing centralization in American education. The solution, as Jeffrey Tucker explains, is "…not to adopt yet another central plan. It is to disempower the planners altogether, and restore decision-making power back to the parents, the teachers they employ, and the students." Such a system possesses the natural signals of demand and accountability that determine which schools succeed and which schools fail. In a decentralized system, the need for high-stakes testing is non-existent. The countless decisions made by parents and educators daily compose the most brilliant accountability system ever devised.
Unfortunately, politicians and special interests are unlikely to cede power and restore authority to its rightful owners. The only solution, it appears, is a widespread revolt by students themselves. While laws dictate what schools students are to attend and the material they are to master, there is no law possible of compelling them to take their tests intelligently. Students, in effect, have the power to overthrow the very bankrupt system of education that robs them of their education. While this would only be a first step toward a more optimal system of education, such a rebellion would be an immensely powerful thing. Imagine the beauty of an American Spring.