Fruit of the Poisonous Tree: Should We Use Research Based on Standardized Testing?


Although I enjoyed reading “Talent on the Sidelines: Excellence Gaps and the Persistence of America’s Permanent Talent Underclass” released this week, I scratched my head when I saw some friends enjoying the report.

I wondered how those friends, who have spoken and written against standardized testing, could promote the results of a report based on such testing. Then I remembered that I, too, have reservations about standardized testing, and yet I, too, want to use those reports in my arguments for policy change. In the midst of my cognitive dissonance, my education thoughts intertwined with my legal training and out popped “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

In 1939 United States Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter used the term “fruit of the poisonous tree” as a metaphor for evidence gained as the result of an illegal search or seizure. See Nardone v. United States — 308 U.S. 338 (1939). Although civil liberties violations are far more serious matters that standardized testing, can we not borrow the metaphor for a moment?

If we object to standardized testing, should we not refrain from using the fruits from standardized testing? Exactly how bad is standardized testing anyways? According to The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, more and more people are questioning the fairness and efficacy of high stakes tests.

This week a group of 120 children’s book authors and illustrators, including authors Maya Angelou and Judy Blume, wrote a letter urging President Obama to curb standardized testing. In the letter, they expressed alarm at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates. They wrote:

“This year has seen a growing national wave of protest against testing overuse and abuse. As the authors and illustrators of books for children, we feel a special responsibility to advocate for change. We offer our full support for a national campaign to change the way we assess learning so that schools nurture creativity, exploration, and a love of literature from the first day of school through high school graduation.”

My cognitive dissonance remains. If we are opposed to schools giving children standardized tests for umpteen many weeks of their K-12 lives, and if we are opposed to schools spending weeks teaching to those tests, then do we not have a duty to start questioning reports that arise from the “negative-effects” of those tests? Might legislators welcome alternative measures of educational progress? Do legislators really crave numbers produced on the tiny backs of children?

Also, do we not have a duty to move towards the future as envisioned a few weeks ago in Equinox Communique: Learning 2030 ? The entire report from that recent five-day meeting of forward-thinking educators, researchers, policymakers, and students from six continents is well worth reading, but two points shine light on what participants envision as the role of standardized testing and education research in the future:

(1) Learning focuses on the development of lifelong learning practices and a sense of self, rather than facts and figures.
(5) Learning progress is measured through qualitative assessment of a student’s skills and competencies that document the learner’s entire experience, rather than measuring a discrete outcome.

Perhaps the children’s book authors will write stories from children’s points of view about standardized testing. Perhaps those stories will have happy endings, maybe telling of a day in the future when children and legislators write their own letters asking the White House to measure educational success not by looking at test numbers, but instead by looking at children’s lives.

When we focus on children’s lives instead of test scores, learning beneficial to society occurs naturally. As John Locke (1632-1704) wrote long ago, “A child will learn three times as much when he is in tune as he will with double the time and pains when he goes awkwardly or is dragged unwillingly to it.” For an excellent example of “in tune with the child” learning, see an October 15th article in WIRED, “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.” Ironically, the students described in that article earned some of the best test scores in their country.

Note: This post was first published on October 24, 2013 and then revised on October 29, 2013 in response to comments posted elsewhere. Thank you to all who commented.


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