We’ve Traded Curves for Cliffs

We’ve traded the curve for the cliff. The short-term effect has to do with how we’re taught, but the long-term difference is about how and what we learn.

Put aside for five minutes the real and tangible loss of play and curiosity when teachers are incentivized to “teach to the test.” Never mind for a moment whether the federal government should ever have stuck its pudgy hand into the cookie jar of education. Those debates are worth having, but not today.

Oregon just made it easier for families and children to opt out of standardized tests. Oregon House Bill 2655 will allow children to skip the tests for the next six years with no more reason from parents than that the tests will “harsh the bliss” of their loved one. The deed is done.

Lake Woebegone has gotten awfully crowded. Everyone wants to live in a place where all the children are above average. But that’s a world where average is no longer average, and it’s not as pleasant a place as parents and others imagine.

I grew up in a time where teachers and students understood that grades would be given on a curve. An average grade was a C, meaning it was the most common. If you got an A or an F, it told you something about your place in the class. You were exceptional — but more importantly, the world adhered to a recognized order.

Curves are navigable. Cliffs are not.

Today the only grade students expect is an A. Everyone expects to leave with a trophy. All the children are above average. Failing to get an A is just that — failure. A grade has become a commodity. Students are consumers, and the grade is what they get for their money — or their parents’ money. The learning itself is lost in that equation.

We start with the assumption of excellence, five stars, thumbs up, blue ribbon, first place. Any outcome less than that is a severe let-down. There’s nearly perfect and there’s utter failure, with nothing in between. If you’re not soaring above the standards, you’re plummeting to rock bottom.

I’m not defending standardized tests. I’d be happy if we could do away with tests, but I don’t want to get rid of standards.

Grades and scores and ratings have gained such influence over people’s lives, it’s all starting to feel like fate. Your scores get you into a school. Your GPA gets you a job. Your credit rating gets you a house.

It doesn’t stop with scholastics. It’s seeping into our daily lives. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote this month that Uber drivers were avoiding her because she had earned a user rating of “only” four stars. She learned that she had to be more chatty with drivers to get her “grade” up.

When somebody as successful as Dowd is changing her behavior with taxi drivers, we know we’re wandering into a place where none of us are safe. Getting your grades up is becoming a way of life.

Dowd revealed that drivers drop their passengers with an invented departure greeting: “Five for five!” Translation: “I’ll give you five stars if you give me five stars.” That’s teaching to the test.

If only perfect scores are acceptable, the scores themselves won’t be valuable for very long. If everybody’s above average, average eventually will catch up. Four stars isn’t good enough, not even for Maureen Dowd.

Whatever the self-esteem movement believes it may have accomplished, the esteem movement continues to wield its influence. Standardized tests represent some attempt — however flawed — to show students how they compare with their peers on a range of subject matters.

The tests themselves can always be improved. Accountability for teachers and schools must be adjusted for sociological and economic factors that are sometimes difficult to measure. We can never stop trying to lighten government’s heavy hand.

But we must find a way to keep the scores themselves, and the standards they represent. Opting out of the tests won’t protect children from eventually finding out how they compare against whatever standards have been set.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs