The Absolute Folly of Standardization

Remember the days when Arne Duncan insisted that having different ‘goal posts’ in every state was preventing us from improving public schools in America? Good times.

I wish I could say we’ve evolved since 2015, when Duncan stepped down. Or after it became obvious that the pandemic was rendering test data even more corrupt and useless than the test data we were enthusiastically generating early in the 21st century to solve our problems and raise that bar. (Sarcasm alert.)

Alas, we’re still hooked on the idea that a third grader in Manhattan should know and be able to do the same things as a third grader in rural North Dakota, that Algebra belongs in 8th grade (or is it 9th) and six year-olds should be starting to read, dammit. Because global competition, falling behind, blah blah blah.

In fact, one of the problems with the word “standards” and its etymology, is that everyone thinks they know what standards are supposed to mean and determine. A precise definition

I’m not actually referring to standardized testing in this blog, although if you believe standardized testing is the only way or best way to understand how your child is doing in school, read this.

Nor am I particularly concerned about the standards (whether local, state or cleverly disguised Common Core Standards) that many educational institutions use to organize curriculum. It’s worth remembering that most of the first “national standards” (in the 1990s, spurred by the Nation at Risk report) were created by educators’ disciplinary organizations, with lots of teacher input—and were voluntary, with grade-span suggestions for what students should know and be able to do, and the order in which things were most effectively taught.

If that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because those standards sank like a stone. It’s hard to even find links to them by diligent googling, but non-educators rejected them for various reasons, most notably Lynn Cheney who went after the History standards in the Wall Street Journal. They often included updated instructional methods and curricular ideas (constructivist math, teaching English as a second language, hands-on science and, of course, new ideas about how America actually became a nation).

The first round of national standards weren’t attached to mandated standardized tests, either. They were about curriculum and instruction. When the second round of national standards—the Common Core– were developed, they were part of a standards-aligned tests package, part of the movement toward “accountability” (a word that should forever have scare quotes when mentioned in an educational context). Practicing teachers weren’t seriously invited to the creation process and the word curriculum was not mentioned.

If tests and curricular benchmarks aren’t standardization, what is? Here’s a quote from Nel Noddings that explicates this beautifully:

The worst feature of current moves toward standardization is the insistence that all kids meet the same standards, regardless of their interests and aptitudes. This insistence is claimed to be a gesture toward equality, but it really is a sign of contempt for the wide range of human talents and the necessary work done by many of our citizens.

Any parent of two, different children understands this at a cellular level. Contempt, indeed.

Can’t meet the standards? We’re placing you on the left downslope of the bell curve, when you’re eight years old. Because we’re pursuing equality. It’s science.

There is value in knowing at what age we can expect most, if not all, students to reach intellectual and developmental milestones. That’s not the problem.

The trouble arises when we use the tools of school—instruction, curriculum, assessment—to compare the students in our care, to label them, to sort them into standardized categories when they are very young. To essentially assign their potential. To show contempt for the wide range of human talents.

What about grade levels? Aren’t there specific skills and knowledge we should be demanding of 5th graders or sophomores? Shouldn’t they all be getting the same core content at the same time?

It’s important to remember that grade levels were an efficiency tool invented when there was a big push to get everyone to go to school, rather than relying on tutors, homeschooling—or no schooling at all. Anyone who has taught school can tell you that grade levels are ephemeral, an organizational fiction.

A room full of children of precisely the same age will always have different skill and aptitude profiles. That’s not to say that we should try to adjust groups to meet academic levels, because kids learn at different rates, at different times, and in different ways–and punishing students by keeping them from their peers is insulting and bound to backfire.  

Age-based grouping is probably as good a method as any for group instruction and socializing. The trick is providing children with educational experiences that match their interests and present skills. Teachers know this as differentiation—and it’s a major challenge. (One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of a teacher who is trying to differentiate instruction for a wide range of same-age students can be found in Alexandra Robbins’ The Teachers. Mind-boggling.)

Here’s another thing Arne Duncan used to say: Education is the civil rights issue of our generation.

I actually think he was mostly right about that—and the fact that his phrase has been co-opted by ugly right-wing thinking and lawmaking may be proof that it’s a powerful thought, when it comes to actual equity and using our schools to support and encourage individual potential.

Which is the opposite of standardization.


  1. “. . . than the test data we were enthusiastically generating early in the 21st century to solve our problems and raise that bar.”

    Uhhh, NO! Not all of us were enthusiastically generating that invalid, illogical data. Some of us were fighting it and paying the price professionally, fiscally-I took a $20,000 pay cut after being forced out of one district for challenging the improper and invalid test data usage, emotionally-have you ever been isolated by your peers because you spoke truth to the powers that be?

    Far too many, almost all teachers and adminimals, have been GAGA Good German implementers of the harmful to all students standards and testing malpractice regime. The few others have paid the price for that “enthusiasm.”



    1. Hey, Duane. Sarcasm doesn’t translate well to blogs, I guess. I will add something to the blog to show Arne Duncan and the plan to standardize everything was dumb and dysfunctional (since the title evidently didn’t do the job).

      I would agree that far too many teachers and admins rolled over and just did what they were told. I would add that many of the teachers who were trained/entered the profession after 2001 don’t know anything except fidelity to the goal of raising test scores.

      Interesting question: Have I ever been isolated by my peers because I spoke truth to power? Answer: Yes. I do know what it’s like to stand in the back of the room as admins are excited about giving the kids granola bars and water on test days, and asking why we don’t have bins of granola bars every day for the kids who come to school hungry? That one didn’t go down well.

      On the other hand, my intention is always to support teachers and make them understand that they probably have more power than they think.



      1. Thanks for the clarification, Nancy. I missed out on the sarcasm. . . what’s new, eh! LOL. I appreciate your thoughts and writings and almost always agree with what you say. Why they don’t listen to those of us who have rational, logical and even cost effective solutions to improve the teaching and learning process is beyond me. I guess we don’t have enough $$$ to make our voices count.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Teachers do have more power than they think. To get them to believe that is incredibly difficult. There are even laws that can be used to use their power for good, but teachers usually don’t want to cause problems. My heart hurts for teachers because ultimately their lack of perceived power ends up hurting students.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh, I agree. I think teachers by nature are kind and nurturing, for the most part.
        And–by themselves–are unlikely to push back hard enough to move the system.
        This is why I always think it’s better when teachers join forces with school leaders and empathetic parents.


  2. I would like to suggest that we have gone so far over the edge, that we are now schizophrenic and talk out of both sides of our mouth. Our Teacher Coaches preach differentiation, student initiated projects and learning, student voice. The next day, we have meetings that tell us to develop common polices for grading, sameness for WASC, similar protocols, I-Ready assessments given beginning, mid and end of year, state standardized testing (SBAC), etc.

    Liked by 1 person


  3. Nancy, do you have any thoughts about WASC, or pieces you’ve written about WASC? I teach in a lower socio economic school in central California. The amount of energy and oxygen WASC takes up is infuriating to me. Getting only a 2 year accreditation (or no accreditation) puts the fear of God into administrators and our district. So we have meeting after meeting, while most teachers don’t question the different initiatives we are working on. Most feel that what we are “working on” does very little to help real students in real classrooms. Yet, few question WASC, it seems to me.



    1. Haven’t written anything about WASC; in my experience, most accreditation schemes benefit the company that created the accrediting assessment and one size never fits all schools. Accreditation then becomes just another form of standardizing, another thing on your plate.

      It feels–to me, anyway–that the keys to making schools genuinely meet student needs center around only a few things. Teachers who understand their content and pedagogy, and are willing to adapt them to the kids in front of them. Admins who have classroom experience and are willing to stand up for both their teachers and the students, especially when bad decisions are made above them. A decent facility and enough resources. Persistence. I have no idea how you measure those–the WASC and other accreditation models are about things that can be measured. And policy-makers love things that can be measured.

      I was struck by your comment that teachers don’t question the initiatives you’re working on. I have been an e-mentor to teachers in schools around the country, and find that younger teachers, in their first teaching jobs, don’t even think to question things that don’t make sense. Pushing back against a district-wide initiative like WASC doesn’t even occur to them.

      This strikes me as an opportunity for genuine leadership, and is one of the reasons that I think if teachers and administrators were to join forces, we might be able to move the needle on time-wasters like WASC. Now… I know lots of teachers who (justifiably) feel that school leaders have all gone to the dark side, and only care about power and control and kissing up. But if we stay in the same hierarchal layers, teachers are at the bottom of the power structure, and will never be able to make a case for using time and money better.

      Think about that– this is an opportunity to build an argument for best use of resources, flex teacher leadership muscles. Surely there are other people who feel the same way.

      Thanks for a great conversation-starter.



  4. Ah, yes, differentiate instruction and teach (test) them all the same. That was the first lesson I learned from district leadership when I began teaching. My first attempt was to use the results from a September district benchmark test (mathematics) and set aside time in every class period for students to work in the areas where they were weakest. Leadership was horrified when they found out.



    1. Not surprised. When you think about it, we’re an incredibly competitive society. The idea that we could attempt to give people what they need, the next steps in their growth, feels like communism or something.

      I taught 7th grade math for a couple of years, back in the day. We had 10 sections of 7th grade math. Every quarter, we gave them a summative assessment. And then the kids were sorted into new sections, according to results of that test. Some kids went up, some went down. The goal was to make them as alike in their math skill levels as possible, so we’d never have to differentiate. Of course, it didn’t work–and the kids who made great strides (who knows why) would move up to a higher section, but be back in your low section after 10 weeks.

      Differentiation is impossible, but it’s all we’ve got to keep kids moving forward, and so we accomplish it by the seat of our pants.



  5. On the topic of younger teachers – I was at a committee meeting of my union where we tried to game out how to reduce the number of standardized tests that were replicating in our schools, especially at the elementary level. These were instruments to “measure” how much more test preparation was necessary to subject kids to so they might be deemed ready for the “real” tests. The conversation had been going on for a while when a new teacher – two or three years in – said: I don’t understand. Isn’t it our job to be sure they pass the tests?

    Especially with policies organizations like TFA, TNTP and Excellence 4 Ed promote, this is the notion that younger teachers may hold. It’s particularly pernicious when these folks don’t come from traditional, university based preparation, or have not done student teaching under the guidance of mentors in a public school setting. I see it as a part of the attempt to deprofessionalize teaching, the better to plop kids in front of screens.

    Liked by 1 person


    1. I served as a guest mentor recently for a graduate course in teacher leadership. Each of the participants had to create and finish a capstone project that would utilize what they had learned in the teacher leadership course. One of my mentees was determined to lead a building-wide initiative to analyze data from state assessment tests, with the goal of getting teachers to understand “what *they* were looking for” in these tests, and thus raise test scores.

      She was a graduate of an elite East Coast college–smart and ambitious (and she had become a teacher through the conventional path). She developed a detailed outline of how she was going to do this–meetings, PPTs, a timeline. My questions to her got more and more pointed: Who is *they* (the ones who are looking for something)? What do the tests really tell us that we don’t already know? Did she find test data more valuable than her own classroom assignments and observations? What did her colleagues think? And so on.

      Finally, she launched this project. Some teachers happily met with her to learn tips and tricks to raise test scores. Others refused. In our weekly Facetime conversations, she referred to those who refused as ‘slugs’ and assumed they were old, burnt-out teachers just putting in their time. The professor who ran the class said just to let it go–that it wasn’t my job to suggest that chasing test scores wasn’t a leadership goal.

      So there you have it.



  6. There we have it indeed!

    The mention of elite East Coast colleges and undying admiration for testing brings to mind this post of Tom Ultican’s:

    For a while, my high school had a pipeline to Smith College, which, multiple years in a row, gave several of our (mostly Black and Brown) kids full scholarships. Upon graduation, they were recruited by TFA, TNTP, McKinsey and charter chains like KIPP.



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