Advertising the Truth

By Jeff Zorn

After a two-month delay, California parents, educators, and newspapers finally got the results of last spring’s STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting). Probably no group was more deeply affected than the parents of the youngest students tested, the second graders.

My own daughter, Sarah Jane, heretofore a winsome if silly denizen of my household, was suddenly redefined as “Child #008458743.” Her school, a Chinese Language Immersion School, became School #6113245.

Sarah Jane’s permanent record now shows where she stands, on a percentile basis, among American children on particular subskills of language and mathematics. A more educationally worthless and civically damaging conception of children like Sarah Jane cannot be imagined.

STAR features Harcourt-Brace’s Stanford 9 test, administered this year to over 4.5 million California public school students in grades two through 11. According to one member of the State Board of Education, the test “will keep school officials and teachers focused on our tough standards. If a school is going to be judged, in part, on its test scores, teachers must focus on what is on the test.”

A big problem is that the Harcourt-Brace company has no legitimate authority to set “our” standards and drive the curriculum for California’s public schools. Test-writers are not educators; norms on the test questions they produce are merely averages, setting no proper expectations about what a student should know or be able to do.

Sarah Jane’s Stanford 9 scores told nothing useful about her intellectual development, either to me or to her teachers down at School #6113245. Anchored only to scores of other kids her age, they do not point to the mastery of any assigned curriculum materials, nor to the development of any particular habits of mind. They are merely invidious comparisons between my daughter and her age-mates, and they say nothing about Sarah as a learner.

School #6113245 is the Alice Fong Yu Chinese Language Immersion School. Sarah’s teachers have spoken to her and her classmates in Cantonese since kindergarten. The English-language component of the curriculum has gone up from 10% to 20% of the day’s activities, but Chinese language defines the school’s purpose. Nothing in STAR speaks to what Alice Fong Yu has meant to Sarah – in terms of her language development, her sense of cultural difference, her sense of fitting in as a minority, her ability to look at problems from different vantage points, even her frustrations with writing complex characters in proper stroke order. STAR scores are fully reductive of all such long-term educative experiences.

And some details in STAR are ludicrous. Under “Word Study Skill,” Child #008458743 answered 16 of 18 questions correctly on “Phonetic Analysis – Consonants” but only 9 of 18 questions correctly on “Phonetic Analysis – Vowels.” In real life, trust me, Sarah has command of both vowels and consonants. Had she gotten as few “Consonants” questions right as she got “Vowels” questions, her overall score as a reader would have gone down into the next quartile, a negative mark not only for herself but for her school. Had she gotten as many “Vowels” questions right as she got “Consonants” questions, she would appear a truly outstanding reader and the Alice Fong Yu school that much more an outstanding inspirer of reading.

Why the discrepancy in her vowels and consonants scores? Who knows, maybe she was tired, or just tired of being tested, or the questions were phrased differently, or she’d been taught the material differently. The salient point is the scores reflected nothing important about Sarah but only her ad hoc response to a particular test-taking situation. It’s about psychometrics, not intellection, with a world of difference between them: quick-and-dirty answers to someone else’s questions, not the insistence and cleverness to answer your own questions, not worrying too much about the nature of the questions or the game itself and especially not its effects on the lower scoring.

However inexact, however gratuitous educationally, STAR scores have great importance in a competitive society ever less squeamish about distributing its bounties unequally. Based on these and similar scores, children will be tracked high or low, accelerated or remediated through school, win more or less impressive credentials, and land accordingly in our social hierarchy.

I resent every minute of the month (yes, an entire month) that the Alice Fong Yu school was forced to spend on preparing children for STAR and then actually administering the test. I feel a sense of uncleanliness in involving her in a travesty of pseudo-scientific measurement and covert engineering.

Jeff Zorn lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English department at Santa Clara University.