Liberal Comedian Mocks Standardized Testing, Common Core

Slowly, but ever so surely, those in the media are realizing that criticism of No Child Left Behind and the national Common Core system is not limited to the far right and the far left. It is a mainstream movement driven by parents, teachers, and other concerned citizens.

Last weekend, on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver spent eighteen minutes taking on standardized testing.  You can view the full video below (warning: NSFW language):

Oliver pointed out President Obama’s contradictions on standardized testing.  When he had his eye on the Democratic nomination, then Senator Obama was quick on the draw to criticize standardized testing:

Don’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of a year preparing him to fill out a few bubbles on a standardized test. We know that’s not true!

Sen. Barack Obama, 2007 in a speech to the National Education Association.

Yet, as Oliver noted, upon becoming President, Obama “didn’t get rid of tests. Instead, he added his own education initiatives like Race to the Top, which encouraged states to adopt the Common Core.”

Oliver tackled how Common Core and standardized testing are unfair to teachers and bad for students, and how American children have actually lost ground on international education metrics since the enactment of No Child Left Behind.  And he noted that waves of children are boycotting the tests.

He could have delved a bit more into the “why.”

Professor of Education Christopher Tienken makes the case here.  Standardized tests do not aid instruction.  To be useful for instruction, teachers and parents need the results returned quickly, and they need to see the child’s actual questions and answers.  Furthermore, standardized tests do not provide the in-depth information about teaching and learning that educators and parents need.

This is more like a bar exam, but note the differences. Adults take bar exams.  They take them after graduating from law school. They study in the summer for six weeks.  Most of them take bar review courses.  That is, they sit for a whole day reviewing the subject matter in outline form, and they spend lots of time taking practice tests and going over test-taking strategies.  And, if they pass on their first attempt, they take the exam once.

John Oliver (photo credit: TechCrunch via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight (photo credit: TechCrunch via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

But Oliver hits the nail on the head in arguing that it is the testing companies—like the international British conglomerate Pearson—that benefit from the standardized tests:

So for Pearson, the other companies, and all the lawmakers that have supported this system, the true test is going to be either convincing everyone it works, or accepting it doesn’t work and fixing it because, at the risk of sounding like a standardized test scorer, your numbers are not good.

Congress is in the process of reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, which as Oliver correctly notes, is driving the teach-to-the-test insanity.  The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), is euphemistically called the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, and it sailed through the senate education committee unanimously.  But it maintains the federal testing mandates!

And that brings up the question for this week: where are (i) all the senators who purportedly support state or local control of education, and where are (ii) all the senators who purportedly support the 10th Amendment and federalism? Adherence to either set of principles demands that the federal government get out of the heavy-handed business of telling the states how often and in what subjects children must be subjected to standardized tests.

Presumably, all those senators are busy working behind the scenes to successfully introduce floor amendments. Hopefully. Or maybe, just maybe, they really don’t believe in those principles.

Emmett McGroarty is the executive director of APIA Education.