Jumping over higher hurdles…only to fall flat on your face

For the Everett Herald‘s editors, raising the testing bar ensures success. They write in today’s editorial:

Hurdles have their place, especially when you want to be certain students can clear the taller hurdles of college or job training that then lead to careers that support and fulfill them.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Times this morning reports that many people seeking full-time work strike out repeatedly, even after years of trying.

Still, the number of Washingtonians working part time while wanting full-time work is higher than before the recession.

Washington ranks eighth highest among the states in the rate of those working part time involuntarily.

The article features a graduate in economics from Washington State University, an academic discipline considered among the most promising for career potential.

Eskinder Said graduated from Washington State University in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, a specialty in international economic development, and high hopes of getting a job within his field.

Four years and dozens of job applications later, he’s working part-time, driving a car for a town car and limo service.

The inconvenient truth, which the Herald (and the Times, for that matter) refuses to acknowledge, is that those who pass tests in elementary and secondary schools and then go on to college have absolutely no claim to meaningful jobs paying decent wages over working lives.

Moreover, there is zero research supporting the argument that testing leads to any of the results promised by the current purveyors of education reform. In Finland, which boasts a superior education system, testing is rare and particular, developed and used by classroom teachers to diagnose their own students’ progress. There are no standardized assessments like Smarter Balanced tests. Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons includes this comment:

…frequent standardized testing is not a necessary condition for improving the quality of education…[original emphasis]

Worse, as in America, student test scores are being used to judge teacher performance to pernicious effect. Sahlberg adds that in such environments the “evidence suggests that teachers tend to redesign their teaching according to these tests, give higher priority to those subjects that are tested, and adjust teaching methods to drilling and memorizing information rather than understanding knowledge. Since there are no standardized high-stakes tests in Finland…the teacher can focus on teaching and learning without the disturbance of frequent tests to be passed.”

More testing, however rigorous, is hardly the answer to perceived educational shortcomings. The Finnish government transformed its once-mediocre system into the best in the world by focusing on two basic initiatives: dramatically improve teacher training and provide the necessary social services to meet student needs in and outside the classroom.

Finland embraces economic and social equality both in schools and in society at large. Compare the Gini index for Finland and the US (the higher the number, the greater the inequality):

Gini index US and Finland 2014

America adopted a different ethic, preferring social Darwinism to egalitarianism. Our schools, then, not only reflect but enable the survival-of-the-fittest mentality. Standardized tests sort students and prepare them for the real adult world. After all, once the school years are behind them, graduates will face a dog-eat-dog society dedicated to the proposition that only a few will succeed as the Rest of Us struggle.

It doesn’t have to be this way.