Standardized testing and the Atlanta cheating scandal

I'm really bothered by how biased and unfair standardized tests are. I'd bet that the schools who changed the answers were schools with a high percentage of kids from cultures than

Guilford, Ct, July 11, 2011 - I’m saddened by the fact that teachers cheated on the standardized tests in Atlanta, but I can’t say I’m particularly surprised. Whenever the emphasis of a school is put on passing a test rather than learning, that’s the risk we run. We can’t change the kids we deal with on a day-to-day basis, but we can change their answers. Is anybody truly surprised?

But what I’m really bothered by is how biased and unfair standardized tests are. I’d be willing to bet the schools who changed the answers were schools with a high percentage of kids from cultures other than the typical middle-class white American the tests were written for.

That idea came home to me not long ago. We had spent three years cycling the length of the Americas and my sons knew a lot.

They had cycled with buffalo and camped in snow. They danced at Carnival and made a pilgrimage to a holy site. They flew over the Nazca Lines and saw conehead skulls, walked on floating islands, and climbed Mayan pyramids.

They ate asado and lomo saltado and tried mate.

But they didn’t know what a binder was.

My sons, after spending three years cycling the length of the Americas, returned to their local school for the last six weeks of school. That night, my son walked in to our apartment and asked, “What’s a binder? My teacher says I need one.”

And they had no idea that in junior high they would move from teacher to teacher rather than staying in one homeroom most of the day. It was fun watching a whole new world emerge before them.

The following day they took the standardized tests. Even though they had only been enrolled in classes for two days, they were required take the tests.

That got me thinking about those standardized tests and I’m more convinced than ever that they’re unfair. I remember giving one of those tests to my first graders when I taught in Ethiopia many, many years ago and I actually marked down which of the questions I figured my students may not be able to understand due to lack of one particular life experience – and at the end of the test I had marked over 50% of the questions.

Although I don’t remember most of the questions any more, I know one of them related to a fireplace. You know – like the fireplace inset into a wall and the chimney goes up behind the wall to take the smoke outside? The kind of fireplaces we have in many houses here in America? The kind that you would never see in most places in Africa?

I remember thinking that my students – regardless of how bright they were – were at a tremendous disadvantage simply because of where they grew up. They grew up with fires for cooking, but had never seen a standard American fireplace. Did that make them less smart? Should they be penalized on the test for that?

And now I’m looking at that very same idea with my own boys. If they had taken the ISAT a few days earlier and if there had been a question on it about a binder, they would have been clueless. Such a simple thing, and one that took all of about ten seconds to explain, but it would have totally thrown them a few days ago.

How often do we do that to kids? We assume they know something – like knowing that junior high kids change classrooms every period? Or knowing what a binder is? Or how to use a microwave oven? Or a fireplace?

And yet we require kids to take standardized tests and base important decisions on them.

I remember visiting my brother in the refugee camp he worked at in Malawi.

“So,” I asked him, “these people walk for a day or ten days or a hundred days to get here. They walk through the gate of the refugee camp, and then what? What happens to them?”

“We assign them a plot of land and they go build a house,” he replied.

“But what if they don’t know how to build a house?” I asked, knowing I would have no clue how to build a house if I had to.

“Everyone here knows how to build a house,” he told me. “It’s unthinkable that they wouldn’t.”

Am I stupid for not knowing how to build a house? Or is it just that my life experiences haven’t included that particular set of skills? Are my boys clueless about life because they don’t know how your typical American kid goes about their daily routine at school? Or is it just that their life experiences have included other things besides that?

Is it really fair that all kids should be given the same questions regardless of their life experiences? I just don’t think it’s fair.

And I hope my sons don’t end up penalized for having had the experiences they’ve had rather than the ones their classmates have.

Nancy Sathre-Vogel is a long-time teacher who recently cycled from Alaska to Argentina with her husband and twin sons.  She documented their journey for Guinness World Records at and also writes for about roadschoolinginternational travel and bike touring throughout the world.  Follow her on Twitter @familyonbikes and Facebook: Family on Bikes

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Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Nancy Sathre-Vogel is a modern-day nomad and vagabond who travels the world in search of beads and other treasures.

Her preferred mode of transportation is a bicycle, although she’s been known to travel in car, bus, plane, boat, donkey cart, elephant, and camel. She is now pedaling the length of the Americas because her eleven-year-old sons have decided they want to get the Guinness World Record as the youngest people to cycle the Pan-American Highway.

Although there are times when she questions her sanity, she somehow keeps going, knowing that treasures await in countries far and wide. You can read about her and her travels at Emails are always welcome.

Contact Nancy Sathre-Vogel


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