The Standardized Test as Tocquevillian Device

This is a cliché by now, but the public schools where I live are producing test-takers: pretty good ones, as far as the numbers show. At parent night at the beginning of the school year, we were introduced to a curricular program explicitly built around “assessments”—the new euphemism, I gather; maybe it intimidates less. A new study now purports to show that testing doesn’t enhance cognition. I’m not sure it was supposed to, but in any event, the critique is that teaching to the test fails to improve learning outcomes. I’m inclined—warning: this is anecdotal—to believe it does improve them, but toward the bottom, where massive investments are being made. What we may be losing in the bargain is what these tests don’t capture: excellence at the top. Welcome to Tocqueville’s democratic equality.

The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative encourages all this; we can thank No Child Left Behind for it too. Enormous resources are being invested to lift those at the bottom who are unprepared to learn, have difficulty taking tests and so forth. This is unsurprising: What gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded gets done faster.  It is difficult to believe the effect is not positive: that learning to do better on math tests, for example, does not at some level teach some students to do better at math.

The problem is that there’s only so well bright kids can do on these exams, and the incentive to invest in them beyond that point vanishes. Since they max out at the 99th percentile, they are, as it were, fully capitalized businesses with limited growth potential. Raising an intelligent student’s score marginally yields far fewer rewards than improving a less capable student’s score substantially.  The result—there are, for example, myriad programs for struggling students but none for gifted ones at my local  schools, and parents around the country have been driven to the manifest absurdity of demanding IEPs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to obtain services for uniquely bright children—is less a race to the top than from the bottom.

Tocqueville nailed this as so many other things, noting democracy’s propensity to lift the lowest while flattening the elite:

[I]f you meet less brilliance [in a democracy] than within an aristocracy, you will find less misery; pleasures will be less extreme and well-being more general; knowledge not as great and ignorance more rare; sentiments less energetic and habits more mild; there you will notice more vices and fewer crimes.

The United States has been able to avoid Tocqueville’s tradeoff between the greatness of knowledge and the rarity of ignorance through—still generalizing here—ample resources and a rejection of envy. The first is at risk from the steady conquest of discretionary spending by entitlement spending. It means we cannot invest everything we want at the bottom and still spend all we wish at the top; decisions have to be made and balances struck that no one wants to face but that grownups cannot avoid. As to the second—the rejection of envy—its survival amid conditions of scarcity is less clear. In either case, virtues—thrift, hard choices and goodwill—are called for. Perhaps a standardized test for character would help.

Reader Discussion

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on December 18, 2013 at 09:49:43 am


It seems to me that one of the virtues requisite for the survival of any government premised on popular sovereignty is a certain disposition towards attentive skepticism. In the end, as Madison understood, the final check on abuse of power by the government is the attention of the people themselves. As Patrick Henry noted in the Virginia Ratifying Convention of June, 1788, suspicion is a civil virtue, if we wish the republic to endure.

One of the ways in which we shape the dispositions of our citizens is public education. This was the original justification for why we have public education in the first place, and to my eye, despite all of the attention given to education for economic growth (STEM, anyone?), this is still the best argument in favor of it.

The kind of testing regime we emply in education matters, because it powerfully shapes the character of our younger citizens. If we wish to promote the kind of healthy civic disposition that Patrick Henry valued, we should not support a testing regime that encourages the idea that the student's job is to memorize the truth, as given to them by someone in a position of authority. This is what standardized testing, as promoted by both Republican and Democratic initiatives over the last twenty-odd years, has done.

So the issue is not really whether or not "teaching to the test" is good for promoting mastery of content. It is rather about what it does to the habits of mind--"habits of the heart"--that it encourages. Habits and dispositions matter, and they have civic consequences--this too is a lesson taught to us powerfully by Tocqueville. And if we attend to this lesson, I don't see how we can argue that standardized testing is a good thing. If it produced citizens habituated to look to public authority for what they take to be the truth, aren't we preparing the way for the kind of public order that George Orwell so powerfully and rightfully condemned?

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on December 18, 2013 at 11:19:49 am


I believe I agree with you entirely, or at least almost so, but I want to think aloud on one point. Ought not one purpose of civic education be to convey civic values? One of these is a skeptical disposition toward public authority, as you say, but it seems to me one can't build a regime purely on that. Truths have to be in the foundation too, and one thing we aspire to do in education is teach them. (Thus Henry wanted state support for religious instruction, accused Madison of failing to account for virtue in the Constitutional regime, etc.) The problem is that national and I assume many state standards have become so hopelessly politicized that they are unavailing and, indeed, often counterproductive in the pursuit of truth. Consequently, I think we might look to Tocquevillian decentralization -- i.e., local control of schools -- for help here. In any event, I take it we would agree that standardized testing is, for a variety of reasons, not a useful pedagogical device for the transmission of civic values. (I hasten to concede its other uses, including incentivizing improvements in basic skills at the bottom. But when it is the only measure we consider, my fear is the Tocquevillian flattening effect at the top.)

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Greg Weiner
on December 18, 2013 at 17:02:30 pm


I think I agree (and disagree?) with both of you.

A healthy skepticism is necessary, if only to allow for the capacity for critical thinking. teaching to a test does not in my mind conduce to critical thinking.
however, I believe that what we suffer from in American education is an overdose of skepticism. I would suspect that the teaching of civics today is quite different from what i was exposed to during the mid-50's and early 60/70's. In a way, I span both the "mythology" period of civics education and the "revisionist" period.
What one is presented with now appears to be an unending assault upon the basic premises of our republic. I'll skip the anecdotal evidence from my own kids education, for brevity's sake but it is clear that what is presented is far different in tone, ideological bent, and intellectual rigor than what i was exposed to - and i think that this has worked to our disadvantage as a society.
Can you imagine what will result from "teaching to the test' on civics when it is presented by the usual left wing suspects?
Funny, the way we were taught basic concept and facts necessary for further study in a discipline was, you guessed it, "rote memorization." this provided us with the basic upon which we were then able to tackle the subtleties of the discipline.
To heck with teaching for the test bring back the "McGuffrey (?) Reader."

take care

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