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USA Addiction to Testing

Who is to blame or who is responsible for the testing glut in the USA? The question was posed on the WPA-L on 7/22/06, after a discussion of the part that the large commercial testing companies play in our “addiction” to language testing. Obviously, the testing companies are only one piece of the answer. Something so widespread, entrenched, popular, and long lasting must have multiple and interacting causes, with lots of symbiosis and self-perpetuating circles operating.

Here is a list of actors (as Kenneth Burke would say) in this situation.

The Public

  • That part of the public who puts faith in psychometrics, numbers, science, expertise, etc.
  • That part of the public who wants to detect and exclude The Other, imagined as trying to infiltrate and take over.
  • That part of the public who distrusts teachers and wants some non-teacher agency to account for teacher failings.
  • That part of the public who believe the many “reports” (from mainstream media and various organizations) that claim that students “can’t write” and who are not curious enough to question these reports.
  • That part of the public who finds some consolation in thinking that things are worse than they used to be, that standards are falling, and wants confirmation of it.
  • That part of the public who find students under prepared to produce acceptable correspondence and documents on the job. (I know because they pay me for consulting jobs.)
  • That part of the public who wants their children to go to the “best” schools, colleges.
    • (Many of my colleagues are in this category.)
  • That part of the public whose children have had negative experiences with some teachers. These people are desparate for some means of accountability.


  • Those teachers who belong to the above parts of the public.
  • Those teachers who enjoy teaching to the test, perhaps because it involves less work on their part—workbooks, rote learning, canned essay formats, easy decisions about grades, etc.
  • Those teachers who believe that the pressure of outside and uniform testing improves the learning in their classes (see O’Neill, Murphy, Huot, & Williamson’s piece in Journal of Writing Assessment 01.2, 2005).
  • Those teachers who intuit that evidence for a literacy crisis (which national testing assumes and always seems to find) provides them with a rationale for their job.
  • Those teachers who are happy to have someone else do the testing (e.g., reading of placement essays) for them.
  • Those teachers who support tracking and strict grade promotion because it makes teaching easier—more uniformity of competence among students in their classes, fewer trailing students that take up so much teacher time.
  • Those teachers who work hard and want to see their slacking colleagues get caught.
  • Those teachers who are proud of their records and the records of their schools.
    • (I teach for a college that boasts about the high SAT scores of their students.)


  • Students who fall into the above groups.
  • Students who like tests, in part because they are good at taking them.
  • Students who like the “teach to the test” curriculum, because it allows them to remain passive and disengaged.
  • Students who categorize other students as dummies and want a public way to show that they themselves are not in that category.
  • Students who are convinced that high scores will get them into “better” schools and get them “better” jobs.


  • Administrators who need numbers to advertise their institutions (comparative SAT scores for Peterson’s, etc.).
  • Administrators who have to make admissions decisions from among a growing horde of applicants and find test scores convenient to use as a sorting device.
  • Administrators who have to make admissions decisions quickly and find commercial testing quicker than local testing (esp. machine scoring).
  • Administrators who are short of operating money and are glad to transfer the some of the cost of admissions/placement to the student or the student’s parents.
  • Administrators who want to impress parents, students, and benefactors with the SAT scores of students accepted.
  • Administators who want to impress possible employers of their graduates.


  • Politicians who find a large part of their voting constituency is in favor of literacy crises, teacher bashing, numbers, stern grade promotion policies, exclusion of The Other, etc.
  • Politicians who find the testing lobby beneficial.
  • Politicians, esp. conservatives but not only conservatives, who find that voicing the message of tough standards, failing schools, lazy students, etc. promotes a public image of themselves that serves their own purposes.


  • Entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to prepare students to do well on the tests
  • Entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to sell teacher-proof recipes for preparing students to do well on the test


Social and cultural forces To these agents may be added some historical trends that have encouraged the growth of language testing in the USA.

  • population growth
  • need to fill minimum-wage jobs with young minority workers

Brief bibliography

Berliner, David C., & Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools (Addison Wesley, 1995)
Hanson, F. Allan, Testing Testing: Social Consequences of the Examined Life (University of California Press, 1993)
Leman, Nicholas, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999)
Owen, David, None of the Above: Behind the Myth of Scholastic Aptitude (Houghton Mifflin, 1985)

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