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The Emperor’s Standardized Test

A few years ago I worked as a tutor helping inner-city children pass the LEAP, a standardized test that all Louisiana public school students in 4th and 8th grades must pass. It’s an exit exam, ensuring that all students have a mastery of the basics of math and English. It sounds so good in theory. Who would be opposed to students mastering the fundamentals? Who would be opposed to accountability and standards?

I approached my first fourth-grade tutoring session confident in my own mastery of fourth-grade math and English. I opened the test booklet and read out the first question. All of a sudden I was face to face with the confusion that can only come from reading something written by a committee of bureaucrats. Not only did I not know what the right answer was, I didn’t even really understand what the question was asking. I read through more questions and quickly realized that I could not decipher the majority of the test. I’m pretty sure that I would flunk the fourth-grade LEAP test!

I ended up grabbing the teacher guide, reading the answers and working backwards to figure out what the question must have been asking. I discovered the trick and taught it to the kids (they mostly passed, by the way). But the real learning experience for me was discovering that the only thing that the LEAP test measures is how good a student is at taking the LEAP test! So much for standards, so much for fundamentals, so much for accountability.

Even more troubling is the inordinate emphasis that schools place on student performance on these tests. In Louisiana failure to pass the LEAP not only results in an individual student’s repeating a grade, but entire schools lose funding and reputation if students do not score well. As a result, there is incredible pressure on students and teachers to bring those scores up.

Schools hold motivational rallies to help students deal with the fear of the test. The pressure is intense. And because schools desperately need students to pass the LEAP, fourth and eighth grade teachers spend almost the entire school year training students for the test. At the most prestigious public school in my area (in other words, the school with the highest LEAP scores), students rotate attendance, coming to school one row at a time, with the other students staying at home, so that teachers can give individualized test prep.

Eventually all the LEAP tutors met to discuss how things were going. I listened, stunned, as tutor after spoke positively about their experiences. Finally, I exclaimed, “This test is a big confusing mess. I can’t even figure out what the questions are asking.” There was a loud collective sigh and then all the tutors began speaking at once, confessing that they too were confused, but were too afraid to admit it, fearing that they were the only ones.

It is a classic case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The State has convinced us that the LEAP test is a true indicator of mastery and that anyone who can’t see that must be incompetent. But the LEAP is stark naked and it’s time that someone points to it and laughs!

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