Review: ‘The Test’ by Anya Kamenetz

The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Testing But You Don’t Have to Be. Anya Kamenetz. Public Affairs. ZZ pages. $16.99 in paper.
The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Testing But You Don’t Have to Be. Anya Kamenetz. Public Affairs. ZZ pages. $16.99 in paper.

Testing — like the flu or deer hunting — has its own season, and in Florida, it is upon us. Throughout March, the public school system continues its Common Core-aligned Florida Standards Assessments (FSA), which rolled out last year.

How standardized testing became a disruptive, high-stakes undertaking is the focus of education journalist Anya Kamenetz’s The Test. The book offers a mercifully succinct history of psychometrics, the study of measuring human skills and knowledge, from the eugenicists who touted the IQ and Stanford-Binet testing in the early 20th century, to the Army Alpha tests during World War I on to Common Core. It also outlines state and federal policies that pushed for standardized testing as the rubric for success in public education.

Standardized testing has always been controversial. Early advocates claimed “the degree of brightness of an individual is expected to remain approximately constant” while others — including Ralph Nadar, who in 1980 went on The Tonight Show to condemn the SATs and GREs — argued that these tests offered only a limited snapshot of intelligence. Kamenetz notes attempts to create more complex tests, such as the College Board-funded Rainbow test that examined practical and creative intelligence and proved to be a better predictor of success in college students than SATs. The test was eventually scrapped, probably because it would have been difficult to “scale up.” Multiple choice tests are just cheaper.

The results of the high-stakes tests became “data-driven decision making.” Good curricula was thrown out in favor of test-taking drills. Teachers’ job security became dependent on student performance, which tempted cheating and was unrealistic. You wouldn’t fire a gym teacher for not getting every student to run a seven-minute mile, Kamenetz quips. The tests were not used to evaluate but to punish, one of Kamenetz’s most powerful arguments.

Take Laela, a Florida third-grader who had stellar grades but was held back because of one point on the FCAT, the test that the FSA replaced. The struggle Laela’s mother went through to get her child into fourth grade reveals the ludicrousness of the test (over the summer, Laela’s tutor, a former Kaplan employee, taught her how to game it). Luckily, after the FSA was introduced last year, education leaders in Miami-Dade and Broward schools determined that it would not be used to hold children back.

Kamenetz’s motivation for writing the book was partly personal; as a journalist tracking the many ways public education has changed (for the worse) over the years, she worried about what awaited her four-year-old daughter. Is she trying to talk herself into putting her kid in private school? She makes a convincing argument.

But Kamenetz stresses that she is the product of public education and believes that things can turn around. Thankfully, the rest of the book is focused on finding solutions and envisioning a better future for public education, which she tackles in clear outlines. She advocates for alternative tests, surveys and other metrics that evaluate well-being, grit and resilience, all proven indicators of future success. (Turns out some countries where students ace standardized tests, like South Korea, also have a lot of unhappy, depressed children.) She lays out different teaching and evaluating strategies and technologies that exist and are in the works that could potentially eliminate the need for standardized testing.

Unfortunately, the game changers that excite her are not on the horizon in Florida yet. Until then, welcome to testing season, kids.

Amy Reyes is an editor at the Miami Herald.