Anti-Intellectualism and Standardized Testing

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A population in which does not think original thought is easiest to control. The government and thus, America’s education system is set up to subconsciously discourage the population from producing its own ideas. As a society that keeps higher-education in such high esteem, why don’t our government leaders want the populous to contribute to the world of complex thinkers? Standardized testing is a mechanism by which the government measures our knowledge and determines how much money our public schools and educators receive, it is also the greatest contributor to anti-intellectualism in our educational system. I will explore decades of research as well as my own past experiences to determine why standardized testing is still in existence even though years of research has found that it has little to no positive effect on students and faculty. Standardized testing contributes to anti-intellectualism by limiting student knowledge and free thinking in order to do well on a test that does not contribute to expanding their knowledge and learning. Richard Hofstadter was a professor at Columbia University, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and is one of the most revered American historians of the twentieth century.

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Hofstadter believed that anti-intellectualism was being promoted in higher-education and in the workplace. Deeply rooted in the government is a desire to keep people from thinking of their own ideas. Hofstadter’s ideas are completely logical; anyone who takes a deeper look into how the government and subsequently, the education system, is run can see that there are many mechanisms by which they do this. Coincidentally, only those who think like intellectuals are able to notice what is happening. When discussing anti-intellectualism, you must first understand what an intellectual is. Hofstadter gives no clear definition of what anti-intellectualism is, but Hofstadter writes what he believes an intellectual is Certainly the intellectual, if he is nothing else, is one who relishes the play of the mind for its own sake, for whom it is one of the major ends of life, (Hofstadter 259). In the above quotation, Hofstadter explains what he thinks is the most defining characteristic of what an intellectual is. An intellectual, Hofstadter says, even after accomplishing what most people would find totally satisfying, yearns for more. It does not necessarily have to be material, it can be knowledge or understanding. Being able to grasp Hofstadter’s idea of anti-intellectualism, is a stepping stone to understanding the negative effect of standardized testing on students’ learning. To understand why modern standardized testing is dysfunctional, we must first discuss the origins of standardized tests and their functions.

The first standardized tests were taken in ancient China. The tests were used to measure the knowledge of a citizen to determine if they were smart enough to become a civil servant. Because ancient China was one of the only societies that a serf could move up the hierarchy, it was used to measure serf knowledge about Confucian philosophy and poetry (Fletcher). Since then they have been introduced all over the world. At first, examiners thought it best to give students essays as to follow the Socratic method of testing, but as the number of schools and the number of students inside those schools grew, it was no longer feasible to take and read in the time given. So standardized tests were introduced in the early 1800s as a way to test and grade large numbers of students in a brief period of time. Later during World War I, standardized tests were used to determine what a soldier’s job would be or if they were qualified to be a soldier at all. All of these tests were graded by hand and needed to be done slowly to avoid mistakes which defeated the purpose of standardized testing. In 1936, the first automatic scanner was invented. The IBM 805 used electrical currents to detects marks by special writing tools (just like how a No. 2 pencil is used today) (Fletcher). This method of using computers to grade is used today in the form of Pearson’s Scantron bubble sheets. The two most common standardized test used today are the ACT and SAT.

Both are used as college aptitude tests. The SAT was created in 1926 by The College Board and the ACT in 1959 by Everett Franklin Lindquist (who later went on to develop the first GED test). Both originated as tests of logic but later evolved into tests of accumulated knowledge (Fletcher). These two examples of standardized tests are only the beginning, or should I say the end? Both the ACT and SAT are taken the junior year of high school. Since President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform in 2001, the number of standardized tests taken by children kindergarten through twelfth grade has increased dramatically. Most students take at least one standardized test a year. No Child Left Behind was the law that was passed to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It was created to combat the growing concern about how the American educational system was no longer competitive internationally (Klein). The main goal of the law was to improve the academic performance of students whose first language was not English, special education students and students who are considered poor or a minority. The law requires that each student in grades three through eight be tested on their reading and math skills.

The institutions must then report the scores of the tests as well as the categories the students fit into (Ex. Non-English-speaking Hispanic immigrant male or French Caucasian immigrant female) and send them to the state. The state would then decide if the students are proficient in the subject (each state chooses what they think proficient is). None of the states achieved the goal of bringing all students up to the proficiency level in 2014. In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed. ESSA’s goal is to roll back the interference of the federal government in how states run their schools. So far ESSA has not reduced the number of tests, it has only allowed states to determine what they perceive as proficient (Klein). The effect on students and faculty mentally from standardized testing is all negative. Never can I personally remember looking forward to a test. In fact, it was quite the contrary. Even now in college, I do not look forward to taking tests. If anything, I may dislike them more. The weight applied to tests in the grade book is absurd. If a student does not do well on one test, there may not be any recovery. Even if that student completes all other assignments and receives a 100% on all of them, they will never be able to obtain an A. Once a student learns of their test score, they can potentially fall to pieces metaphorically. All they brought was stress and anxiety.

According to the Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Social Issues standardized testing contributes to unhealthy levels of student stress, resulting sometimes in serious mental health problems and even suicide, (1161). Furthermore, the encyclopedia states there is also concern that emphasizing performance on standardized tests (and even grades) diminishes students’ motivation to learn. Rather than focusing on the value of learning, educational contexts that emphasize outcomes focus students on getting the grade or test score”emphasizing what is required to do well on the test rather than focusing on genuine learning. Lifelong learning and critical thinking are not key educational outcomes when the focus is on tests scores, (1162). Learning from a test is virtually unheard-of. Standardized tests promote the idea that facts and concepts must be memorized rather than truly learned and be able to be applied. This is a reason standardized testing promotes anti-intellectualism in schools. Students in grades K-12 do too many standardized tests, it takes away from learning more valuable information in the classroom If we do so many standardized tests, they must work, right? I guess they do for the reasons they are meant for. On average a student in an American public school will take one hundred thirteen standardized tests in grades K-12. That is over eight tests a year. Testing time for juniors in high school is by far the largest. While preparing for tests and taking them only takes up 1.6 percent of instructional time in third through eighth-grade classrooms, students in the eleventh grade spend 15 percent (or around 27 days) preparing and taking standardized tests.

Also keep in mind these numbers do not include time spent preparing for or taking Advanced Placement, career and technical or college entrance exams (Hefling). Students who are considered to be a minority have a bias against them when taking standardized tests. The principal example of testing bias I can think of is using the English language in reading and writing tests. If a student is new to a country, they may not know the dialect or more commonly the native language. The student may be a genius but cannot express their true spectrum of knowledge due to the language barrier. In Richard Lomax’s The Journal of Negro Education, in his conclusion he states Minority students in classes are receiving less quality instruction in these content areas (math and science) and more instruction to prepare for mandated tests that fail to meet recommended standards and that are driving instructional practices, particularly among teachers of minority students. Increasing the amount of and the stakes associated with testing does not bring about improvements in the delivery of instruction, (Lomax 183) According to Lomax, Maxwell West, Harmon, Viator, and Madaus standardized testing reduces time to focus on other subjects, they encourage the dismissal of material that students are not tested on and increase the time needed to teach students how to take the test (Lomax 171). A problem I had with standardized testing is that the majority of the content on the I had not learned yet. A specific example I have from the math portion of the ACT. On the test, I had to use the properties of logarithms to find a variable x. I did not know how to do it. I had never seen an equation that used log form before. I recognized the abbreviation log from being on my calculator, but that was the extent of my knowledge.

Even though I spent about 27 days preparing for this specific test I still was not taught or introduced to all the concepts that would be on the test. Not being aware of what would be on the test, despite focusing on it for 27 days is not acceptable. How do test makers think they can determine the extent of a student’s knowledge when they have not been taught the concepts yet? This is just another flaw in the educational system. Testing if a student has the knowledge expected of someone their grade level and not teaching them what they need to know needs to end. If they are going to test students, they need to make them fairer. Their research concluded that standardized testing has critical flaws in the area of catering to diverse student needs. Through their research, they also found that classes with a higher average number of minority students did not do as well as classes with less diversity. A classroom with the least amount of diversity is obviously going to do better on a test that is custom tailored to their culture versus a classroom full of students that have never taken a standardized test. In Minnesota, data recently taken from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) shows that scores have remained flat. The Education Department of Minnesota stated that the state may never boost the academic performance of students of color without first addressing the outside factors that hold children back in school, to this Charlie Weaver of the Star Tribune says this is a cop-out and that their statement suggests that schools are powerless to educate students who are economically disadvantaged or who face other challenges outside of school and that these students cannot be helped.

The education system is using minority students and the possibility of their sub-par home life as an excuse for why the tests statewide have remained stagnant. Not allowing students to express the true extent of their knowledge because they are considered a minority is a tool standardized tests use to encourage anti-intellectualism. Capitalism has no place in education. While schools need to compete with each other to become the best that they can to attract students and become perceived as the best school compared to the other competing schools like a business, they cannot be run like businesses. A business’ main goal is to make a profit, a school’s main goal should be educating students to their fullest potential. Pearson Education is a British owned education publishing and assessment service that provides the majority of the tests children in the United States take K-12. They have over 40% of the testing market, which is over triple any other companies’ shares (Oliver). John Oliver takes a serious situation with how Pearson dominates the textbook and test writing distribution business and jokes about it saying a hypothetical girl could take Pearson tests from kindergarten through at least eighth grade, but a test by the way that she studied for using Pearson curriculum and textbooks taught to her by teachers who were certified by their own Pearson test.

If at some point she was tested for a learning disability, like ADHD, that’s also a Pearson test, and if she eventually got sick of Pearson and dropped out, well, she’d have to take the GED which is now, guess what, a Pearson test, (Oliver). He also jokes that the only test that they will not have a hand in is the HPV test she will take in college, but they will get on that as soon as they see the episode, (Oliver). This just illustrates how insane it is to have one company control this amount of the education our children receive. Pearson is not a good company either, their record is full of complaints including technical glitches with their online tests and textbooks and slow grading of online tests and assignments. Even the content of their tests has accumulated pages of scrutiny. A specific example would be a question that was on elementary school test in New York a few years ago about a talking pineapple. Six question were determined to be invalid because they did not any sense to the test-takers. If there are mistakes in our standardized tests, they cannot be trusted to determine our knowledge. Large companies do not belong in education because too many mistakes can be made in the test making-process. We cannot trust the education of American students if the purpose of those companies is to make a profit. Standardized testing is an anti-intellectual activity.

Authoring essays and doing research projects as a replacement would be infinitely more beneficial. At least during those assessments, the students can express their knowledge through their own words and thinking instead of having a 25% chance of getting a question right on a multiple-choice test. During the course of writing an essay, research much be done; research that may open new doors for students that they would never have thought of or had the change to explore yet. A research project has even more potential than an essay. During a research project can introduce new evidence and ideas to the world, that is what being intellectual is about. The students can hypothesis and gather information in order to prove or disprove their hypothesis. It stimulates the brain and broadens the mind. Reading essays and determining a grade for a research assignment may take more time but it is time well spent if it benefits the students.

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Anti-Intellectualism and Standardized Testing. (2019, Jun 24). Retrieved January 30, 2023 , from

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