Students should take fewer "boring" standardized tests, President Obama said today, according to a report of his remarks by the Associated Press, which quotes him as saying:
One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you're not learning about the world, you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math," the president said. "All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that's not going to make education interesting."
"And young people do well in stuff that they're interested in," Obama said. "They're not going to do as well if it's boring."
It may be that what students need is not fewer tests but more tests, with the sort of instant real-time feedback that you can get on a computer. And it may be that what Mr. Obama derides as "teaching the test" has some value, because if the test tests science or math or "different cultures" — which, in the ancient times when I went to school, was called geography or foreign language — then "teaching the test" will necessarily involve learning some of that content and those skills.
But it may be, too, that different parents feel differently about what their children need in terms of testing. It might make sense for schools to compete on this point, with some touting to parents that their children are going to get tested online twice a day, and others touting to parents that their children aren't going to learn how to fill out bubbles and are going to spend all their time instead "learning about different cultures." Most parents aren't stupid about these sorts of decisions. They do a pretty good job of figuring out what works for their own children, which may be different from what works for some other parents' children. Some families may even have one child that does better in one kind of school with one approach to testing and another child that does better in another kind of school with another approach to testing. Some parents like the standardized tests because they give a kind of reality check on the school's own claims about what the child is learning. If you are paying $30,000 a year in tuition and your child is getting A+ marks in English and then the verbal SAT comes along and it turns out the child has no measurable vocabulary and no measurable reading comprehension, well, maybe it's better to know that reality if that is the reality than to continue on, deluded.
But instead of letting parents figure this out and schools figure this out, Mr. Obama seems to frame it as him figuring out, on a nationwide basis, how often children should be tested, and using what tests. This makes sense, I suppose, if the federal government is spending tens of billions of dollars a year on primary and secondary education, which it is. You almost have to test to have any accountability at all over the money. The alternative is just to lower taxes by the amount of the federal education spending, or to turn it into vouchers that individual students or their parents can spend in whatever way they want. Certainly most parents have a sense that in some way or another their children are going to be tested in life, and few, if any, want their children to be sheltered from tests entirely. As it is the federal government just requires standardized tests of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, anyway, so the notion that children are spending all of their time on filling in bubbles is something of a straw man, though there can also be state and or local standardized tests as well.