The Failed Metaphors of Testing

Common cultural symbols influence what the public perceives of schools by M. GAIL JONES, TRACY Y. HARGROVE AND BRETT D. JONES
When you listen to the talk about student testing today, you find the language is packed with analogies that instantly bring forth common images. We may scarcely notice the baggage that these signs and symbols carry in shaping our perspectives of “high stakes,” “standards” and “performance.”

We move through a world of McDonald’s arches, Nike swooshes and Disney mouse ears. The mass media counts on this power of analogy to alter our understanding and actions. Not surprisingly, student testing is intentionally embedded in carefully selected symbols that are intended to arouse public opinion and influence the direction of the testing movement.

What are our images of testing and how do these images shape our interpretations of testing policy? More importantly, beyond the surface of the symbol, what are the underlying messages and the hidden assumptions embedded in the language of testing? A close look at the rhetoric of testing shows the power of the imagery and language used to associate testing with sets of values and beliefs that people want from public education. These symbols include the one-room schoolhouse, sports competition, the factory and Disney.

One-Room Schoolhouse
One of the most persistent images in American education is the one-room schoolhouse, which brings to mind a nostalgic view of education in pioneer days when schools were small and safe and a homogenous set of students all knew each other and the teacher. This image also suggests students working to learn the essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic.

When politicians refer to “the basics,” “rewards,” “ABCs” and students working with their “noses to the grindstone,” the language suggests another time when life was perceived as simpler, when a single devoted teacher taught the essential subjects along with the values of hard work. The symbolic values associated with the image include a focus on families, community, order, safety, small size and a teacher who was responsive to parents.

Alt hough these are desirable traits of schools, the analogy is problematic because it fails to recognize the complexity of our society and our educational systems. Schools are no longer small with some elementary school populations exceeding 1,000 students, and it isn’t unusual for middle and high schools to serve thousands of students. Most modern schools serve diverse multicultural communities in which several languages are spoken and bear little resemblance to the uniform cultures of the one-room schoolhouse in prairie towns. Within a single family, children may ride buses across town to different schools separated by many miles. Parents’ desire to have small, responsive schools where their children are well known and where parents’ interests are respected is an important goal, but high-stakes testing does nothing to address the complex issues of school size, a transient and mobile population and school culture.

The Ballgame
Some of the most pervasive symbols of our culture emerge from sports. Sports metaphors abound in testing. Politicians, parents and educators often talk about testing using expressions such as “stepping up to the plate,” “coming up to bat,” “winning or losing,” “measuring up” or “being No. 1.” Associated with these images are notions of schooling as a competitive endeavor, testing as a spectator event with winners and losers, and the presence of teams where only those who pass the tryout get to play.

For many observers the sports metaphor suggests hard work, dedication and perseverance to stay in the game. If you practice and work hard enough, you will eventually win. All of these values are desirable from a public perspective.

But the analogy of education as a ballgame falls short in a variety of places. Perhaps most importantly, the sports metaphor fails because education is not a game with winners and losers. Unlike sports, the purpose in education is for all of the “players” to win. In addition, schools can’t pick who is on the team and who sits out, nor can schools exclude the less athletic or the unmotivated.

Educators strive for all students to be winners, but high-stakes tests required under the No Child Left Behind Act have created new categories of students and large numbers of educators and schools who will be labeled winners and losers. Each year this labeling process begins anew, and as the losers improve their performance, the bar is raised so that new categories of winners and losers can be created.

These labels now apply to school systems, schools, principals, teachers and students at every level. Tied to the titles of winning and losing are the symbols of “rewards,” “sanctions” and “penalties.” These take the form of financial inducements dangled in front of underpaid educators or negative actions such as public embarrassment (which brings to mind the Pilgrims’ practice of locking people into stocks in the public square), mandatory assistance teams or the threat of takeover by the state. This tendency to compare and rank ourselves is a strong American practice that is embedded in our culture. We take pride at “beating out the other guy” and being better than others. But within schools, we cannot afford to have losers.

Educators, recognizing the gaming aspects of testing, learn how to play to win. Across the country educators have scheduled pep rallies before testing events, fed the “players” extra nutritious breakfasts before the exam and have held repeated warmups, practice sessions and strategy sessions to figure out how to win. We can’t pick and choose who comes to school and who does not—although there are those who would like to exclude the slow “runners.” Schools must serve all children, not just those who are particularly healthy, talented or highly motivated.

The language that designates winners and losers falls short of usefulness when children are our focus. These children are winners and losers at what? As complex human beings we each hold a range of talents and skills. One person may excel in reading, while another is talented in mathematics or painting. The range of these skills within a single grade level is vast and where one student might be able to write a novel, another might struggle to write a single paragraph. Looking a little closer, we recognize that the struggling writer may be an accomplished musician. So what defines winning? To sum up the diversity of human talents into a single test score (that most likely measures a narrow range of skills) is to fail to recognize the wonderful complexity that constitutes humanity.

Education is not a ballgame where children can choose to play or not. We can’t select our teams or decide in which innings we will play our best players. We can’t allow any student to “strike out” or “sit on the bench.” This is not a betting sport where wealthy spectators sit on the sidelines and watch to see which teams will get to the playoffs and which teams will go down in the first round. The stakes are too high for this metaphor, and we must strip away the rhetoric of the language of sports to put human lives at the center of our focus.

The Factory
Daniel Pennac, in his 1994 book Better Than Life, wrote: “School cannot be a place of pleasure, with all the freedom that would imply. School is a factory, and we need to know which workers are up to snuff. … [E]verything, absolutely everything in the school setting enforces the competitive nature of the institution, itself a model of the workaday world.”

This manufacturing analogy of education emerges consistently whenever leaders from business and industry lead educational reform. Terms like “ratchet up the pressure,” “production of literate citizens,” “productivity,” “beating last year’s goals” and changing the “standard” suggest that schools are a factory with the task of producing a product that will serve business and industry. The imagery suggests visions of neat, orderly assembly lines where students are raw materials and quality control is conducted periodically. If one of the “products” fails to meet the standard, then the product (otherwise known as the student) is recycled through the production line until it meets the standard. The goal is for the production process to efficiently meet deadlines and produce a uniform product that meets all measures of quality.

It is easy to see how schools, particularly the large schools that have evolved in recent years, are viewed as factories. School systems have “warehoused” and “moved students along” as if they were anonymous widgets. Even graduation ceremonies suggest that each of the uniformly wrapped individuals comes with a guarantee of standard quality. Standardization, of course, is exactly what some employers want. Because a good economy depends upon having trained workers who can fill assembly lines and be counted on to improve the efficiency and productivity of business are most valued.

This view of children as raw materials is where educators diverge dramatically from leaders in business and industry. Educators do not typically see themselves as producing workers for industry, but that is exactly what some business leaders want from our educational system. The tension around this point of view threatens to derail any effort to significantly reform education.

Teachers look at the students in their classes as diverse and rich human beings whose lives are likely to evolve in a myriad of directions. They seek to develop the wide range of talents and skills that each child possesses. It is morally incomprehensible to educators to repeatedly label a child as below standard and send them back time and time again because it is ineffective to do so. Teachers know that children arrive at school with huge disparities in abilities, home resources and past experiences and that these elements will define how a child progresses at school.

School reform by testing is typically blind to the differences children have as they enter schooling. These differences, however, are not trivial. They must be considered in providing each child a quality education. High-stakes testing is designed to get short-term gains without addressing the fundamental inequities that exist among children, families and schools. The factory model of schooling drags along assumptions that get in the way of meaningful reform of education.

According to Henry Giroux, in his 1999 book The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, the imagery of Disney has become a powerful American icon that we are increasingly adopting as our community goal. Housing developments are sprouting up across America that mimic the Disney town of Celebration, Fla., or the town portrayed in the movie “Pleasantville.”

In these planned developments, homes are built with similar layouts, are painted with a narrow range of colors and have yards of a designated size that are devoid of the products of human activities such as clotheslines, outdoors art and children’s playground equipment.

The Disney image brings to mind the small town of yesteryear, a place of fun and innocence, where there is no garbage, crime or illness. Instead, the town is filled with efficient technology and maintained by an army of attractive smiling young people. In this town, no child is left behind because there are lovely velvet ropes that define the linear path for educational progress.

On the surface, schools that resembled Disneyland would appear to be wonderful places to educate children. The attractiveness of the Disney symbolism is fueled by parents’ concerns about school safety, struggles with underfunded and poorly maintained buildings and fear of the rapidly changing demographics of school populations. Peter Trifonas, in his article “Simulations of Culture: Disney and the Crafting of American Popular Culture” for the January-February 2001 issue of Educational Researcher, argues that the Disney ideology “depends on a conception of an interpretive community as the abode of subjects who are the same, and without difference, think the same, hold the same desires, values, and ideals.” It is an ideal place of innocence and uniformity.

Unlike many of our parents’ and grandparents’ schools, schools today are often filled by children who speak limited or no English, don’t celebrate familiar holidays and do not attend the neighborhood churches or synagogues. Milbrey McLaughlin, director of the Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching at Stanford University, argued in a November 1991 Kappan article, “No nation on earth has ever tried to educate the diverse student population that attends America’s schools today. No educational system has ever tried to provide academic instruction to the range of students enrolled in schools today. Add to this complexity all the ills—dysfunctional families, high rates of student turnover and absenteeism, community violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy—that have a powerful effect on academic motivation and involvement.”

It is no wonder we long for the Disney image of clean, efficient, innocent and safe schools. But looking a little deeper, do we really want our schools to resemble the Disney town of Celebration.

Do we really want to wipe away color, remove variation and make our schools uniform places, where students are expected to meet the same standard at the same point in time? Can we do so even if we wanted to? Whose standards should we use? Or is it our color and the myriad of shades of people, ideas and perspectives that makes America great?

Other Alternatives
While each of these symbols of education falls short of representing the reality of our schools, the underlying values and beliefs provide insights into the goals of those who seek to reform education through expanded testing. The vision of the one-room schoolhouse and Disney portray a time when life was less complex, where children were safe and two-parent families were the norm. These images suggest that the public wants schools that are familiar and where parents know the teacher and feel welcomed in the school any time. Instead of using high-stakes tests to meet these goals, why not create smaller, community-centered schools where parental input and safety are priorities?

The ballgame metaphor suggests that the public wants to know about the quality of particular schools and teachers and how they compare to others. But we believe many indicators can be used to measure quality, not simply test scores: the variety of academic courses offered, the availability of extracurricular and afterschool programs, school safety, class sizes and dropout rates.

Further, all schools don’t have to play in the same game or even the same sport. Some schools might choose to emphasize some aspects of the curriculum over others, such as a school that focuses on the arts. These types of schools are beneficial to students and parents who have different opinions of what it means to win and how the game should be played. We see diversity in schools as a means to strengthen our educational system.

Finally, the factory model suggests that the public wants to produce students with similar knowledge and skills so they can better serve business and industry. We believe that beyond the basic skills students need in reading, writing and mathematics, there should be flexibility for students to develop into their own unique skills and pursue their particular academic interests. Not all students will work in the business world and not all businesses require the same types of skills. If schools can seriously look at the underlying issues that frame school reform by high-stakes testing and consider alternative ways to address the issues, perhaps educators can regain some of the trust needed to change education in ways that will ensure high learning by all students.

Gail Jones is a professor of science education at North Carolina State University, Box 7801, Raleigh, NC 27695. E-mail: gail_jones@ncsu.edu. Tracy Hargrove is an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Brett Jones is an assistant professor of education at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. The three co-authored The Unintended Consequences of High-Stakes Testing (Rowman and Littlefield) from which this article is drawn with permission.