Standardized Testing as Cultural/Social Engineering (1): The Tiger Mother Argument

Standardized Testing as Cultural/Social Engineering (1): The Tiger Mother Argument


To what extent do PISA and other standardized test scores really only measure proficiency in cultural or social engineering? "Tiger mothers" may offer one clue to the answer...

My recent essay in the Washington Post about standardized testing has prompted an interesting discussion on the Sloan-C listserv. Retired University of Illinois economics professor Lanny Arvan responded with some thoughts about performance on standardized tests, including the observation that "Tiger Mother" Amy Chua wants to make differences in national performances on standardized tests "about cultural differences." Lanny ended his post with this comment: "...I could practice 4 hours a day from now till doomsday and still not make 18/20 free throws. Some of it is talent."

I think there are two important insights about standardized testing which can be gleaned from this comment. This post deals with the first one: that PISA and other standardized test scores really measure proficiency in cultural/social engineering to a huge extent -- so being #1 in PISA is not really a badge of honor at all.

Chua's controversial philosophy about "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" hinges on this assumption: "children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences." This view is diametrically opposed to that strain of thought which guides unschooling, Summerhill-type schools, and progressive education to some extent: that children will work quite hard when allowed to pursue their own interests. Most American parents would tip the balance much more in favor of honoring rather than overriding children's preferences, even when it comes to things which require "work."

But I agree with Chua in this respect: cultural differences have a lot to do with scoring well on standardized tests. Hers is an extreme example, but don't you think that her daughters would score off the charts on the PISA if they took it? And isn't it a reasonable hypothesis that a small army of like-minded "tiger mothers" could explain the Chinese top-ranked performance on PISA tests? Perhaps our "Sputnik moment" (as educational policy analyst Chester Finn described the Chinese PISA results) is really a matter of being dangerously behind in the domineering mothers arms race...

It appears that this superior performance on standardized tests comes at a price. For starters, it's a good bet that most children of Tiger Mothers are lousy at free throws, since they would never be allowed to practice. If Tiger Mothers ruled the world, apparently there would be no orchestras either (who would play all the other instruments?), the sports teams and theatrical arts would be lousy, and there'd likely be a huge shortage of teamwork skills, not to mention an abundance of social ineptness thanks to all those missed sleepovers and playdates. Americans seem to be much more concerned about overly stressed teenagers than about under-challenged ones, and standardized tests are a big part of that stress.

They are also becoming an ever-larger mechanism for cultural and social engineering, which is why IMO we need to keep an extremely wary eye on the attempts to standardize higher education, including online higher education. The 'ecological' diversity of education is one of its greatest strengths, and most standards-driven movements have a strong monocultural element to them. But that's another conversation...

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