altdailylogoinvThis is where I'm (gradually) reposting the columns I wrote for the late, great AltDaily.

I want to say thanks to Jesse Scaccia and Hannah Serrano, the creators of AltDaily for providing me with this platform.

How Carl Sagan Taught Me Everything that's Wrong with Standardized Testing

 Note: This article has been lightly edited to account for the fact that some of the original links are unavailable.

Today’s column focuses on something that, while certainly not as juicy as political intrigue, is really much more impactive in the scheme of things. I can’t make the topic of education more exciting, but I hope you’ll give it attention befitting its importance.

Still with me? Cool. Now imagine this: What if the tens of millions of people in America who regularly fall for all the BS that’s promulgated on cable “news” and the interwebs actually possessed and utilized the intellectual tools needed to see through the lies and propaganda?

The key to anyone being able to do this is an ability to engage in critical thinking, and the ability to do that is largely determined by the quality of one’s education.

So, answer me this: Why would those in political power – the very people who have come up with such plums as “No Child Left Behind” – actually want anyone to receive a quality education when the net result would be that those they lie to would then have the ability to see right through their lies?

Nothing should be more disturbing to us than politics influencing education. But as we read every day, that’s exactly what’s happening in 21st century America.

I want to start with a story about Standards of Learning (SOL) testing. It helps shed some light on just what SOLs indicate, or more importantly, fail to.

Growing up, I and those in my generation were administered tests in school to determine the degree to which we were absorbing the material we were taught. They were known as achievement tests. What changed with SOLs wasn’t so much the idea of testing, but the reason for the tests and the ramifications associated with the results. The purpose of achievement tests was to gauge the academic progress of students, while the purpose of SOLs is, whether administrators will admit it or not, to gauge the performance of schools and teachers. If performance doesn’t meet expectations, schools lose accreditation (and often funding) and teachers receive poor performance reviews… so what choice do they have? 

The net result of this is that passing SOLs has become more important than the actual quality of the education students receive. This has led to what many original critics feared – namely “teaching to the tests.” For the most part, this process consists of rote memorization of any subject matter that may be on a test. In the eyes of SOL-driven school systems, whether or not that student retains a single scrap of what they were taught is irrelevant as long as they score well on the test, thus polishing the school system’s apple.

Because of this, students learn no context for the facts they’ve temporarily memorized, and no training in critical thinking to enable them to practically apply what they’ve learned.

In a story, and an editorial, we learn about how Norfolk has made some gains in terms of schools being accredited based on SOL testing. Good for them. But does this indicate that the students at these schools are getting a better education now? For that matter, does failure to be accredited indicate that a school is not providing a good education?

The answer to both of these questions is a resounding “no.” All accreditation indicates is that the teachers manged to get their students to absorb and temporarily retain enough facts and figures to pass the SOLs. It means little in terms of the actual overall quality of the students’ education.

I’ve shared this anecdote many times over the years, but it never loses relevance to me:

Mant people are familiar with the limited TV series called “Cosmos,” and perhaps also know that the original version was produced by PBS back in 1980. One of the episodes in the original series was about the human mind, and in it, host Carl Sagan offered this idea: No matter how smart you are, no matter how hard you try, and no matter how much time you spend at it, in your lifetime you’ll only be able to absorb a tiny proportion of the range of human knowledge. Here is some Sagan for you, if you haven’t enjoyed him recently:

To illustrate this, Sagan used a set of library stacks in the Library of Congress. He said that if the library itself represented the sum of human knowledge, no individual would be able to learn more than was contained in a set of stacks about 30 feet long and 8 feet high.

This was a revelation to me. It made me profoundly understand that it wasn’t what quantity of knowledge you possess that’s important, but rather comprehending and accepting what you don’t know – meaning that being ignorant in terms of our actual personal range of knowledge is normal and unalterable.

However, if you know you’re lacking knowledge, and have the curiosity and skills to learn on your own, what you specifically do or don’t know becomes virtually irrelevant. All that matters is that you be capable of learning.

This is how SOLs have damaged the process. They do nothing but force teachers to cram raw data into kids’ heads without training them how to use it. There’s no emphasis at all in teaching critical thinking, and more importantly, inspiring lifelong intellectual curiosity.

I’m not saying that facts and figures don’t matter. I remember my multiplication tables and do everyday math without a calculator – a skill I acquired in elementary school that I’ve always appreciated. 

Consider: When there’s a debate on an important topic – say, human-caused global warming – the critical part of an intellectually active brain rejects all opinion and goes after the science and data, which now, thanks to our wired world, has never been easier to find. If the average person did that, the political debate over climate change would have ended decades ago, and we’d be much further along at addressing the problem. 

When you’re looking for answers related to a topic like this, critical thinking is the tool that allows you to differentiate between fact and propaganda. SOLs eliminate critical thinking from the intellectual process.

Has anyone actually ever met a teacher who thinks SOLs are a good idea? Has anyone ever talked to an educator who likes teaching to the tests?

In an article, we’re told that some students at Jacox Elementary School are starting a couple of weeks early. Is the purpose to give them a leg up in getting started on their coursework? No. Of course not. The purpose as stated in the article is to “start SOL preparation early.”

I don’t have answers. But there are many very smart people in the field of education who at least have some. However, I am sure of this: As long as education is used as a ping pong ball by politicians, the quality will continue to deteriorate. And make no mistake – SOLs are a political tool, not an educational one.


I also know that the continued erosion of funding for education will only lead to the U.S. falling further behind the rest of the industrialized world in terms of it’s academic ratings. A Wall Street Journal article said this: 

“The results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)… show that teenagers in the U.S. slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which gathers and analyzes the data in the U.S.”

Does this sound like the whole “No Child Left Behind” thing is working? And if it’s not working, how long do we intend to stand by passively and let this situation continue?


One more thing: There are no words to describe how angry over and tired I am of any denigration of teachers I hear – particularly from right-wing politicians who continually imply that teachers are overcompensated.

The average teacher starts work much earlier than most people, works later – generally grading papers and coming up with lesson plans, serves as a babysitter looking after your kids for six hour a day, and digs into their own pockets to provide other people’s kids with the things they can’t afford themselves, or that their parents are just too negligent to care about buying. That’s all on top of the highly skilled practice of actually teaching.

Some of the schools they work in are shitholes after years of neglect. And some of them are practically war zones.

Teachers should be treated with honor. Good teachers and quality education are the only things which can and will save America from it’s continuing decent into an abyss of fear, ignorance and eventual collapse.

Will we collectively figure this out in time?

Articles cited in this column:

SOL scores reveal testing performance but don’t fill in all the blanks

More Norfolk schools likely to earn full accreditation

Evidence of progress in Norfolk’s schools

Back-to-school is here already for some Norfolk kids

(Mike Rau wants to recognize the late, great William Watson – his U.S. Government teacher. Mr. Watson was the person who inspired Mike Rau to become a political dissident.)