Resolved: On balance, standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States.
This debate is familiar. A related debate was seen in PF in 2005, "Resolved: Student aptitude should be assessed through standardized testing." but a very similar resolution appeared in March 2009, "Resolved: That, on balance, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has improved academic achievement in the United States." (Note: the No Child Left Behind Act was also debated in 2003 but that predates my years as coach). I remember the 2009 debates quite well and no doubt if I looked, I would find evidence and discussion from that time. I guess that is one benefit of the NSDA recycling of similar topics. This debate should provide good ground for a lively debate although my gut feeling is that popular opinion may lean Con. Standardized testing as a means of determining educational achievement has been around for a long time in the U.S. and there is a wealth of good literature available online discussing the Pro and Con. In particular after more than a dozen years of No Child Left Behind, we have accrued no dearth of evidence to attest to its effectiveness or lack thereof, in several segments of American society and education outcomes in general.
I begin with an analysis of the resolution.
It is certainly not the first time we have seen these words in debate and the meaning should be obvious if you think in terms of a balance-beam type of scale used to weigh things. On balance basically means, as the Collins English Dictionary puts it, "after weighing up all the factors". On balance is another way of saying after comparing one side to the other or specifically in debate terminology, after looking at the pros and cons. The comparison does not always have to be analysis of pros versus cons. Sometimes one can compare factors to standards (norms, known quantities, expectations, etc.) Often, this approach can be preferable to weighing up two unknowns on each side of the balance beam. Think about it, if one weighs one unknown against another unknown, it is, one presumes, easy to determine which weighs more but impossible to tell how much weight either side carries. More on this later.
Perhaps this can be treated as two words without significantly changing the meaning but there is no point in doing so because the terminology has become well-known in the U.S. and most closely associated with elementary and high school educational settings. Gawthrop gives the following definition:
The legal definition for standardized testing is, “A test administered and scored in a consistent or standard manner... administered under standardized or controlled conditions that specify where, when, how and for how long children respond to the questions. In standardized tests, the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent. A well designed standardized test provides an assessment of an individual’s mastery of a domain of knowledge or skill.” [page 5, ellipses in original]
The final sentence in Gawthrop's quotation, "provides an assessment of an individual’s mastery of a domain of knowledge or skill." gives us a glimpse of a potential standard to use for weighing.
I like the Merriam-Webster definition of this word; "conducive to personal or social well-being." Nevertheless, this may fail to adequately provide a clear bright-line. The bright-line is a standard demarcating the division between two outcomes. For example, the line between pass and fail or the line between beneficial or not beneficial. More on this later.
education, K-12 education
As described by Merriam-Webster, education as a noun is the process of teaching someone, or the knowledge, skill and understanding one receives in school. Since K-12 is a term denoting Kindergarten through 12th grade, it references the education attained in primary and secondary school in the U.S.; grade school through high school. Interesting that the definition of education allows two topical approaches to the resolution. One looks at the outcome for the student; the knowledge skill and understanding imparted upon individuals. The other topical meaning looks to education as a process; the collection of methods, resources, and systems utilized to impart knowledge.
If you are debating in one of the 50 states, the United States is the place where are will be debating. The term in this context serves to limit the debate solely to the jurisdiction of the United States. Therefore, no need to research standardized test benefits in other countries like Germany or Australia, if either of those nations do testing. Of course, as I have mentioned many times, this limit does NOT mean we cannot look to other nations as models or examples.
As students many of you may be unaware of the controversy surrounding standardized tests. Many students only look at the tests as a heavy, requirement which sucks-up time for other fun activities like working on debate cases. For several decades, the federal government has been concerned about the apparent decline of the U.S. in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) when compared to other nations around the world.
For both students and up-and-coming professionals, tests and studies continue to confirm that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge when it comes to math, technology and science. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which surveyed more than 150,000 people age 16 to 65 in 24 different countries, America's results for literacy were disappointing, but mathematics and problem solving proved to be especially embarrassing for a nation that has formerly reigned as a leader of innovation and technology. The U.S. ranked 21 out of 23 countries in math and 17 out of 19 countries in problem solving in the October study.
But the U.S. decline in STEM may only be a visible indicator of a general decline in education, noted by education system advocates and which became a growing concern of the U.S. government. Before discussing this much further, it is useful to keep in mind that the business of education falls to the individual states under the U.S. Constitution 10th amendment.
In 1791, the 10th Amendment stated, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Public education was not mentioned as one of those federal powers, and so historically has been delegated to the local and state governments.
Therefore the many details of providing public education to citizens is managed almost exclusively at the state level, or so one presumes. However, the U.S. federal government, also has a constitutional requirement to provide for the common good. Therefore, the federal government has supported states by providing funding and other resources and lands to the states for the promotion of education. The U.S. also has a regulatory role in that equal rights protections are enforced at the federal level in order to ensure that minorities and the disadvantaged have equal access to public education. Moreover, the competitive advantages the U.S. enjoys in many international ventures and businesses is seen as a national interest which strengthens U.S. soft-power and influence in world affairs. Loss of competitiveness attributed to a general decline in education attainment does not go unnoticed by the U.S. federal government. Of particular concern to the federal government is quality of education across various socio-economic levels. As a general rule, lower income areas have poorer educational outcomes than higher income areas, and lower income areas are often predominately black, or Native American or Hispanic, or other ethnic groups which in the past have required federal action to protect their natural and civil rights.
Of course, along with the perceived decline of U.S. education attainment as measured in things such as reading proficiency tests, math scores, and so on, came the expected political posturing, finger-pointing, blame-placing and associated "solution" proposals. Direct federal government attempts to level the playing field for minorities was consolidated into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), passed in 1965, which provided a variety of federal grants and resources aimed specifically at lower-income districts. ESEA was amended and reauthorized in 2002 under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, "nickle-bee"). NCLB made provisions that districts needed to demonstrate forward progress in education attainment in exchange for continued disbursement of grant money and so launched a renewed and vigorous discussion on the quality of American education, accountability, and standardized testing as a measure of education attainment.
As you begin to research this, you almost certainly will realize that NCLB has been controversial leading to charges of districts cheating or lying about results to receive federal grant money, to wide-spread incentives to "teach to the test" instead of providing the kind of well-rounded or general education intended. Under Obama, the federal government has made it possible for states to assume a larger role in setting their own standards under certain conditions.
Traditionally high-performing schools made headlines as they failed to meet their set rates of improvement, and states saw increasingly high rates of failure to meet the rising benchmarks. By 2010, 38 percent of schools were failing to make adequate yearly progress, up from 29 percent in 2006. In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as part of his campaign to get Congress to rewrite the law, issued dire warnings that 82 percent of schools would be labeled "failing" that year. The numbers didn't turn out quite that high, but several states did see failure rates over 50 percent (McNeil, Aug. 3, 2011). The law allowed states to set their own annual benchmarks, provided they reached 100 percent proficiency by 2012-13, and some simply refused to raise their benchmarks any further or requested waivers from the rules. In the summer of 2011, Mr. Duncan promised to create a waiver option for all states, though it would have strings attached requiring those states to adopt some of the administration's education priorities (McNeil, Aug. 9, 2011). In Congress, meanwhile, members from both parties saw a need to rewrite the law, but agreeing on the shape of a new version of that law was slow in coming (Klein, Jan. 16, 2011; Sept. 14, 2011).
While the controversy and debate surrounding federal intervention into education is far-reaching and broad, its general relevance to this debate is somewhat limited. It is important to know how we got to this point and to understand that politics and ideology may play a major role in the topic. This debate is not necessarily related to the federal role in education but it is specifically focused on the role standardized tests play in the educational system. The resolution does not tell us if the tests we will debate are mandated federally or by the state or even by a local school board. To be sure, standardized tests have a purpose and the resolution gives us few clues as to what that purpose may be despite the resolutional requirement we must determine their benefit to education. If we believe we determine a tool beneficial to education if it makes kids smarter, it may be difficult to understand how any test makes a child smarter since it usually serves as a measure of relative educational achievement, that is relative to the applied standard. If we determine a tool beneficial in that it exposes shortfalls or weaknesses, maybe we can conclude standardized tests are beneficial. But, being able to the see the flaws in something is a long way from being able to fix it, even if it is a necessary first step.
I think most judges, especially adult judges, who are educators and/or parents will be interested in a case which frames the determination of beneficial in terms of education attainment. That is to say, does standardized testing help make our kids smarter or not? Oddly, smarter is one of those things most of us know and understand but how to we really know if a kid is smarter? Despite the proclivity to favor a framework that looks at direct educational outcomes on students it is still possible to lead the judge to an alternate framework which evaluates the ability of the educational system to carry out its mission to provide education.
One potential framework pitfall I see lies in establishing the "on balance" requirement of the resolution. Standards are key to the debate, so let me explain. If a team gets up and reads, for example, a case describing all of the advantages inherent in standardized testing beneficial to education the balancing requirement infers the Con (or strategically, perhaps, Pro) must provide an examination of the advantages of not doing testing but instead using alternative means to benefit education. Thus the judge evaluates comparative advantages, a classical competitive debate framework. The broad assumption is the judge will be, as a manner of speaking, comparing apples to apples. In other words, the assumption is the both sides will use the same evaluative standard. But what happens if the Pro side discusses advantages relative to grade point averages while the Con side discusses advantages relative to reduced drop-out rates? The judge is now comparing apples and oranges. This tends to make the outcomes of rounds more subjective.
The foregoing discussion on potential problems inherent in balancing different standards, is closely related to the broad scope of the word "beneficial". I think one of the main criticisms of certain kinds of tests, is their irrelevance to certain cultures or cultural identities. There are many kinds of "education" which serve a vast array of purposes relevant to the personal identities of individuals. Some may value good test scores in math or science, while others may value the ability to think critically, or adapt to different environmental challenges as being much more beneficial to personal education. I do expect those kinds of comparisons to show up in rounds. At some point the good judge will need to decide, whose standards are we trying to meet or exceed? Typically, standardized tests are created by governments and are designed to measure educational progress against standards which the government decides are important. Thus, I would surmise those standards must be in accord with the judge's personal experience.
Let's see what the Pro and Con positions reveal.
Click here for Pro
Beard, K (2013), Behind America's Decline in Math, Science and Technology, U.S. News and World Report, Nov. 13, 2013. accessed 11/1/2105 at: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/11/13/behind-americas-decline-in-math-science-and-technology
EW (2011) Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. (2011, September 19). Issues A-Z: No Child Left Behind. Education Week. accessed 10/1/2015 at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/no-child-left-behind/
Gawthrop, J. (2014), Measuring Student Achievement: A Study of Standardized Testing and its Effect on Student Learning, accessed 11/1/2015 at:
LWV, League of Women Voters,The History Of Federal Government In Public Education: Where Have We Been And How Did We Get Here?, accessed 10/1/2015 at: http://lwv.org/content/history-federal-government-public-education-where-have-we-been-and-how-did-we-get-here