Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Standards and Success

eledford's picture

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE


Education in the United States definitely has its flaws. It seems we are always in search for a better way to structure a classroom and teach students, while finding new and fresh ways to  integrate methods of learning. I suppose the focus of this paper surrounds public primary and secondary education in the United States, but really such things apply to all areas in the academic world. One of the huge problems in education today seems to be establishing what the point of it actually is; are we teaching students to pass the periodic testing, of which is currently federally required in primary and secondary education? Are we teaching (or learning) in order to get the into the best post-secondary schools? Or are we teaching students to grow and expand their minds into their own, take their own direction stemming from their own or inspired motivations? What seems to be happening is that standardized test scores are becoming the most important focus of education. This type of success based completely on the numbers may be the biggest problem in education today.



Wayne Grytting suggests that we are trying to educate our children in a business model of education where achievement is measured on the technique and quantity rather than quality of work (1). He is attacking this idea of standardized testing, which  brings us back to where we questioned the goals of what an education is really for in class, whether  the objective of education should be to bring everyone to the desired outcome, or to be to allow everyone to progress to differing outcomes based on the individual. The system is now requiring students to meet the standard mark, which does not take the individual student into account; no outside factors (socioeconomic status, class, accessibility, parent involvement, etc) are incorporated – only the ability to regurgitate information crammed in before a test. Of course, this occurs regularly in the educational system, aside from standardized testing. But one of the problems with having school standards is that they are not even uniform throughout the states; how can comparisons be made (even if based on lousy tests) if states are providing different focuses. Now I am not rallying for one manner of national standardized testing, but  it is pointed out that “the United States is one of the few developed countries that lacks national standards for its public schools” (2).  What is of critical mention is that schools have been lowering their standards in order for their schools to achieve passable marks, for if they do not, they will be subject to sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law, which tries to federally mandate successful educations.



The No Child Left Behind law really is not so great, says Ravitch, because it simply does not work (3). Setting “universal” standards based on math and English are not producing fruitful statistics. Instead, as more and more students miss the mark, we deem them or the teachers as incompetent failures, fostering stigma and forcing the teacher to spend classroom time working on how to answer standardized test questions instead of focusing on growth and exploration of the mind. While trying to do something great for the school and prevent his or her own job loss, the teacher is forced to change the focus to non-applicable teaching, and the space that is so necessary for thinking outside of the box becomes transformed into a locked cage without a key.



 As a part of the educational system, my schooling has focused primarily on doing well in math and science, for those are the areas I have been told I surely will be bound for success in; at least that was how my primary and secondary education trained me to think. I came to Bryn Mawr as a biology major only to revoke that idea after taking a few courses and realizing I could really do anything I wanted. That is when I turned to anthropology, yet even my own family questioned my motives for majoring in a non-science such as Anthropology, for what would I do with that sort of degree, what kind of job would I be able to get, they asked. Turns out, I really did love biology (and medicine and anthropology), but I just had to know for myself that I had other options and areas of exploration; now I am a double-major and I’m also a pre-med student, go figure.


Standardized testing that I am used to is MCAT (or to others, the GRE and LSAT) testing and review that many of us undergo to be accepted into graduate school. Countless hours are spent training on how to answer such questions and preparatory courses for these tests can cost a fortune; meanwhile, we are missing out on experiential learning. Within childhood education, with the focus being on math and English, other rich school subjects are effectively being tossed out the window; learning becomes narrow and focused fully on the analytic, which Deresiewicz shows us as well (4). Of course, in his article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” he is speaking of the journey toward and within post-secondary education; however, his ideas can be applied to all areas of schooling. By being produced in a system that values oneself based on the numbers of test scores, alienation and self-doubt arise for those who do not make the cut.  Students (today and yesterday) “are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them…that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers (4).”


Something that needs to be established here is to focus on what we can change. Do we change how to instruct, how to learn? What can we integrate and what must we reestablish? “There is a disconnect between what motivates quality teachers and school-district plans to tie teacher evaluations and pay to test scores (1).” So really, whose mindset needs to be altered -  the student’s, the educator’s, or those who run the schools themselves? It is obvious to me that standardized testing is the problem, or at least one of the really big ones. Another dilemma is the fact that schools focus on the analytical aspect of education fully, ‘for that is the way to success’. These struggles within the educational system make less people interested in teaching because the perks are poor. Continually, the quality of teachers is not considered as important when the pool of individuals chosen from is smaller and less diverse. There is a difference between choosing to go into education for money and for a passion. Arguably, some do both. What is often misrepresented (or not represented at all) is that structure of classrooms is not uniform and schools showing low test results may have disordered, chaotic, and violent classrooms as opposed to very controlled environments. While my opinion is that the teacher may do best in a facilitator role (rather than the dictators I grew up under), there is a level of respect needed from all sides, students, teacher, and the community, in order to achieve this. A lot of inner city schools lack trust in all of these parties, which may be why the achievement level is prone to being low. Maybe small classes are better; maybe there is a way to increase family involvement with school, but how does one go about that if the family is unsupportive. Is it the teacher’s responsibility to excavate a child’s passion for learning?



It is difficult to say “let’s do away with standardized testing in childhood education” while its premise is still being carried out in higher education and beyond. The ACT and SAT are often requirements of high school graduates to get into a college or university and one gets into medical school traditionally if he or she has a high GPA and great MCAT test scores. Things like character assessment of both the teacher and the student and a strong community presence may be a necessary tool to implement the joys of learning and self-motivation and self-determination. In class, we are always discussing the perks of thinking outside of the box, but we are fortunate to have a place to do so. We obviously need passionate teachers, first and foremost. I think this should be evaluated through their personal achievements, character, history of service toward others, and their zeal for the subject that they are teaching should be evident. Perhaps what is needed is a more selective process for hiring teachers, which does not by any means have to be merit based, and definitely not competitive based on GPA, so to speak. Another remedy may be to facilitate more schools based on community interaction. Kirp illustrates the importance of community schools, involving close-attention and involvement of parents, after-school programs, summer projects, in his article “Cradle to College” (5). By providing other programs that are “educational” or that cultivate learning within the life experience rather just at school may be a golden-ticket answer.



Overall, perhaps we should be focusing less on standardized testing and more on recruiting passionate teachers, different ways of evaluation for students, educators, and school systems as a whole. Classes tailored to kids interests, or programs that give exposure to different experience (through service or work-study) should be implemented at an earlier age, not merely acceptable in liberal arts colleges. Personally, one of the keys to a great education is being able to find out one’s own passions and apply them in many different areas of study, shouldn’t that be the basis for the learning system?


Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE Cited References 

1. Grytting W. The Seattle Times. 2010 Aug. 26; Available from: Accessed  2010 Sept. 23.

2. Dillon S. The New York Times. 2010 June 2; Available from: Accessed  2010 Sept. 23

3. Ravitch D. Why I Changed My Mind. The Nation [serial on the Internet]. 2010 May 27 [cited 2010 Sept. 23]; Available from:

4. Deresiewicz W. The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. The American Scholar [serial on the Internet]. 2008 June 1 [cited 2010 Sept. 23]; Available from:

5. Kirp D L. Cradle to College. The Nation [serial on the Internet]. 2010 May 27 [cited 2010 Sept. 23]; Available from:



Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE



Angela DiGioia's picture

Additional methods of standardized testing

Reading your paper, I found myself asking the same questions that Professor Grobstein posed in his comments.  I, too, struggle with standardized testing, like the SATs, MCATs, etc.  I have an aversion for them, not because of their length, but because of their lack of truly testing comprehension rather than ability to just memorize test-taking techniques and apply them.  Is that what makes a good doctor?  I should hope not.  By the same token, I want to be a doctor (and be the patient of a doctor), who is both able to diagnose illness from a medical standpoint (which would involve memorizing systems, pathways, etc.) as well as engage with patients on a more human level.  How would we test this more human (social) side of being a physician?  This would undoubtedly take much more time and one-on-one effort that is afforded by the MCAT and be much more subjective.  In practice, these types of systems do exist.  A doctor's boards involve a conversation between doctors about specific cases and patients that they've treated over time and, I would imagine, involved both the objective and subjective sides of standardized testing.  Perhaps, than, there is a way to incorporate the more human side of testing earlier in the process, and not just for doctors, but for all students.

Paul Grobstein's picture

recognizing/getting beyond the appeal of standardized testing

"we should be focusing less on standardized testing"

I certainly agree, but lots of people apparently don't.  Why is that?  What is it that many others understand differently, and how can we create a new and more embracing story out of existing differences? 

test's picture

Learning how to learn

Interesting read. I think a lot of school is about learning "how to learn". That's what tests like the MCAT tests you, whether you can learn physics, biology, chemistry. It's nothing really practical. Only later on do you get to learn how to use your knowledge and apply it to doing something you're passionate about.