While standardized testing has been in use in U.S. education for decades, until recently, it was most often used for special purposes, such as college entrance: the SATs, and the GREs for graduate school and so on. IQ testing had been part of the educational landscape, also. However, it was only after 1983's government-backed report that found American children at educational risk that standards became the main tool for establishing educational goals and determining whether they had been met. Unfortunately, this thrust produced not better educated children, but rather greater insistence on more standards and more testing until, by the advent of No Child Left Behind, the standards left almost no leeway for teachers to educate children, but rather simply to prepare them to do well on lowest-common-denominator sorts of tests. Conceivably, adding a humanizing element, such as service teaching, can help mitigate some of the ill effects of testing run amok.
In the era of No Child Left Behind, a program even a cursory reading of the popular press will reveal as a misdirected, underfunded, and thoroughly detested effort by the Bush administration to improve education, it is tempting to throw out all standards in educational practice. However, it might be better to attempt to find some standards that are effective and examine why. Alternatively, if none can be found that are effective, again, it would be better to discover the reasons for the failure of standards in school reform.
Foss and LeMahieu (1994) compared treating standards as a freestanding component of school reform to walking in the woods, picking up a fallen branch, and failing to notice that it was connected to all other things in the woods: the trees, the root system, the ground, as well as the sky, the birds flying through the treetops, and so on. Likewise, they point out that it is unreasonable and unworkable to treat standards as sufficient in itself to accomplish school reform. Rather, it should be taken as a component of many initiatives directed at school reform. In context, they point out, standards can play a significant role.
The problem arises when localities' educational administrators promulgate standards and develop and use what may even be appropriate measures of achievement. Then, Foss and LeMahieu point out, "They behave as though that will be enough, as though standards and assessments alone define systemic reform. Close examination of some of the implicit assumptions of standards -based reform leads one back to the many other trees in these woods. It discourages the thinking that attending to any one or two actions alone can possibly make for a healthy ecosystem" (Foss and LeMahieu, 1994, p. 16). Success in using standards to drive school reform depends on the integration of the standards with other aspects of the educational process.
They offer some suggestions for how standards can best be used in school reform. Primarily, they suggest, the standards must reflect the system's aspirations for students. "To fail to do so is to dictate that the winds of change will blow powerfully through the halls of our schools, but unfortunately not into any of the classrooms" (Foss and LeMahieu, 1994, p. 16). This is precisely what many say is wrong with all standards-based reform, and with No Child Left Behind in particular. The standards have nothing to do with the unique characteristics of each school population and are, in fact, so divorced from interactive learning and teaching that the 'teaching to test' process leaves students uneducated except in the narrow parameters of the test. And even then, the point could be made that exceptional 'test-takers' know only how to mark down correct answers they have memorized but lack understanding of how elements of the subject relate to each other. In short, they have become parrots rather than educated human beings, all in the name of standards.
In order to avoid this, it would seem to be almost imperative to avoid state or national standards that necessarily attempt to be all things to all students, and, instead, create standards locally. Foss and LeMahieu suggest that a school district should first describe the educational experience it desires for the students, and then determine what sort of organization it will require to achieve those intentions (1994). Perhaps the most significant question to be answered, when attempting to define…