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Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Global Infestation of U.S. Educational Ideas: A Cautionary Thought by Author Kay Ann Taylor

Editors: Today we welcome a post by guest blogger, Kay Ann Taylor. Our readers will remember the article that we published in our winter 2009 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy by Kay Ann Taylor, entitled, Poverty's Multiple Dimensions. In today's post, Dr. Taylor reflects on her recent visit to a conference she attended in Istanbul, Turkey where she learned about the extent that the United States focus on standardized testing has had on the educational thinking in other nations. Historically, U.S. educational ideas have had an influence around the world. Our author asks us to think about what ideas we are exporting today and if this is the "best the U.S. has to offer."


Exporting U.S. Education: Is Standardized Testing the Best the U.S. Has to Offer?
by Kay Ann Taylor
Kansas State University


As an educator and an individual, a major personal bias and belief is my non-belief in standardized testing (ST). With the onset and passing of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the festering in American education surrounding standardized testing has reached the status of some god-like or pagan entity that determines the futures of not only our children, but our teachers, schools, communities, country, and impacts our global efficacy. Those who are not educators (politicians) continue to direct and dictate policies and practices to those who are. How can and why does the American public at large and in general succumb to the edicts of this flawed, detrimental, and demeaning measure of human capacity? And, more to the point, why and how did exporting U.S. ST become so welcome, so revered, and, received so uncritically by our global community? Like cancer, the disease of U.S. standardized testing infects the global arena. I remain critical and skeptical regarding the gate-keeping effects of ST in terms of its impact and outcome on the lives, futures, education, thinking, and psyches of the human enterprise.

The polar views in the U.S. regarding ST are far from new. They are divergent in philosophical orientation, utility, purpose, interpretation, and implementation. There are scholars that support ST. Conversely, numerous scholars continue to challenge the oppressive nature of ST in that it lacks context and marginalizes English language learners, learners from low socioeconomic status, creates winners vs losers. Critics argue further that ST in no way represents learning, knowledge, understanding, much less real-life application. Additionally and importantly, some scholars contend that ST is racist and gender-biased. There is a distorted Darwinian element ingrained in ST, i.e., the survival of the fittest, which misrepresents Darwin for one, and rather, serves the interests of those seeking to maintain the status quo. Further, ST represents an outdated factory system of education that serves social efficiency, social control, social reproduction, and maintains the status quo for social mobility, thus begging the question, “Whose interests are served by standardized tests?” Believing that humans can be ranked, filed, and sorted on the basis of ST is one of the most destructive and dehumanizing practices education faces.

Standardized testing is big business. This hit me squarely during a session at the World Council of Comparative Education Societies this June (2010) in Istanbul, Turkey. I co-presented with my former M.S. student (now pursuing her Ph.D. in Russian Literature at another institution while teaching Russian Language at our university) based on her historical and qualitative thesis research in which she compared the first-ever national 2008 External Knowledge Testing in her Ukrainian country of origin to the historical onset of ST in the U.S. We went to our session location in advance to familiarize ourselves with the setting and to ensure the technology was in place. A Lebanese professor, who teaches in higher education in her country of origin, was there to attend the session and started a conversation with us. The title of our presentation, "Border Transmission and Reproduction Déjà Vu: Ukrainian External Independent Knowledge Testing—Reflections in the Mirror of U.S. Standardized Testing," captured her interest. Even before the session began, we discovered our topic was controversial because of our critical perspective.

As conference sessions go, ours was well attended by 25-30 people from almost as many different countries represented. There were two other countries and comparative topics in our session. Questions for all presenters were held until the end after everyone presented. Evidently, I have been naïve for quite some time because I was unprepared for the lively Q&A that followed regarding our research. Until our session, I remained blissfully unaware the extent to which ST from the U.S. has been exported globally. Plainly, we struck a nerve with most of our colleagues. From the discussion that followed directed at our research, it appeared to us that ST not only is well-received by our global counterparts, but that for many, it never was questioned critically regarding the numerous flaws and negative effects noted above.

After our session, I went outside to relax briefly. A young lady who attended our session stopped to visit with me. She is Brazilian by birth and informed me that Brazilian higher education institutions require the GRE. When I brought up my passion for Critical Race Theory (CRT), she smiled and informed me that she studied for three years with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, and Claude Steele—all prominent CRT scholars. She likely was the only individual attending our session who was familiar with, understood, much less agreed with, our position.

This experience provided considerable material for my reflection. After returning from the conference, I visited with a colleague and shared what happened. To my surprise, he challenged our critical assessment of ST and informed me that he knows personally an administrator for one of the major testing companies in the U.S. He explained that in his conversation with this person, he was informed that the company exercises care in test construction with the host country’s interested parties to ensure native language and culture are represented and not misinterpreted. After visiting the company’s web site to see for myself, I engaged in more reflection about this phenomenon. What struck me is that what is highly likely in this international ST-creating process is that the same flaws and biases inherent in the U.S. system also are reproduced in each country constructing “culturally sensitive” ST. For example, as stated above, ST represents an outdated factory model of schooling in the U.S., especially in terms of social efficiency, social control, and maintaining social mobility for the status quo. As I continued my conversation with my colleague, I continued to delineate the negative aspects of ST. One comment made by my colleague that struck yet another chord, was his statement that ST in many countries is used for placement in education. This, of course, also caused me consternation as I responded that placement represents tracking—from my perspective yet one more oppressive and outdated practice that remains deeply entrenched to the detriment of many in the U.S. In a final attempt to convince my colleague, I posed the question, “Do we want our students to be good test takers or to be able to understand, engage, embrace creativity, and be able to apply what they know?” It was this question that finally afforded success in relaying my concerns about ST to my colleague.

I continue to contemplate this conundrum of ST plaguing our schools and educational system in the U.S. With every semester since the passing of NCLB, my undergraduate foundations preservice students enter my class increasingly expecting me to tell them what to think and how to do “it”. Colleagues at other institutions indicate similar observations in their parallel classes. I anticipate that this will continue to worsen with each class of K-12 students in our public education environments who are subjected to the edicts of NCLB.

Thus, I now am acutely and painfully aware of the global infestation of ST. The oppressive biases and stultifying effects of ST now appear to be accepted uncritically in numerous countries. Moreover, ST reinforces competition and isolation rather than cooperation, collaboration, and understanding—the latter qualities needed to serve all humans productively in our global setting. U.S. education is revered deeply by many international communities. Will this, in turn, affect the success of international professionals seeking to live and work in the U.S.? Will ST ensure for them that they are no longer required to start their education over in the U.S. in order to pursue a profession they were educated for and practiced, perhaps for decades, in their country of origin but their “foreign” education and experience is inadequate by U.S. standards? I doubt it.

Ultimately, my question remains: Is exporting standardized testing the best practice U.S. education has to offer?

Kay Ann Taylor is Associate Professor of the Foundations of Education, American Ethnic Studies at Kansas State University. Her article, the Poverty's Multiple Perspectives, appeared in our winter 2009 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy on the theme, The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty: Rethinking Poverty and Education.

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