Stinkin’ Standardized Tests

Dean of School Dr. John “Jay” Howell


Not too long ago, Dr. Wolfe and I were on a conference call with a couple of people who were trying to sell us something. What exactly they were selling isn’t that important, so let’s just call it an “educational resource”. At one point the conversation turned to the “business” that is standardized testing. The details of the conversation’s progress up to this point aren’t significant, but suffice it to say that the climactic point came when Dr. Wolfe said (and I may be paraphrasing slightly, but if so, only slightly), “If it were up to me we’d just get rid of every stinkin’ one of them!” (I’m pretty sure the “stinkin’” part is a quote – I have no recollection of anything resembling a “g” sound). Now, I understand that this response might be thought to be in tension with the part of our mission devoted to academic excellence and college preparedness. I’ll seek to address that tension below. What followed was several seconds of somewhat uncomfortable silence – at least on the other end of the phone (I’ll venture to speak for him and note that Dr. Wolfe and I remained perfectly comfortable, thank you very much). Finally, one of our conversation partners spoke in a slightly agitated tone (and again I paraphrase): “But then how would you measure student learning outcomes? How would you develop your teaching effectiveness without the data points?!?” At this point Dr. Wolfe smiled slyly (I wish this had been a video chat), made a few comments, and said something to the effect of, “Dr. Howell, how would you respond?”

Before I provide the gist of what I remember saying in response, allow me to address the apparent tension present in Dr. Wolfe’s “stinkin’” comment. The Cambridge School of Dallas indeed does prepare students for success on standardized tests, and our track record bears out this truth. A recent Straight from the Head included data points concerning the Class of 2018 and their performance on just such standardized tests. With regard to the SAT, the Class of 2018 scored on average 303 points above the national mean of 1068, 183 points above the mean score of independent schools in general, and 218 points above the mean score of religious schools in particular. The differences between public schools nationally and in the state of Texas were even more drastic. And we have a similar track record when it comes to the PSAT/NMSQT and AP exams. Even so, we have made in the last two years concerted efforts to prepare our students for these tests in several ways, not the least of which is appointing a test preparation coordinator from among our distinguished faculty. So we do consider these data points, and do use them as a measure of our effectiveness. We do this because higher educational institutions value them as measures and as data points. But we don’t consider them to be the only such measure, nor even the most significant (after all, we don’t answer to higher educational institutions, we answer to God first and our constituent families second), which finally brings me around to my response.

Whenever I’m asked questions about education or educational philosophy, I think about my sons. After all, despite my significant obligations to the students of Cambridge in this regard, my primary obligation when it comes to education is to my children. And how do I measure their student learning outcomes, and according to which data points do I evaluate my effectiveness as a father? Admittedly, their grades and standardized test scores (such as they are for 5th and 7th graders) do enter into my evaluation of their success. But these are certainly not the only measure, nor in my mind the most important. The most important “data points” in this regard come from my daily interactions with my children: our conversations, the activities in which we engage together, and just life together generally. Further, my evaluation of their educational success comes not just from my interactions with my sons, but from my observation of their interactions with others. These interactions and observations tell me much more about my children than their test scores or grades. They tell me whether or not they are (or are becoming) young men of character, and more particularly, young men who are Christlike. I take the time to make these observations and engage in these interactions with them because they are particular objects of my affection; they are my children, and I love them. And we should love our family.

It isn’t unusual for people within the Cambridge community (parents, teachers, administrators, students, Board members) to describe Cambridge in familial terms. And that speaks primarily to our faculty’s work with the students. The interactions of our faculty with our students are not that different from those between my sons and me. Our faculty individually and corporately evaluates the success of each student not simply on the basis of test scores and grades, but on the basis of conversations, interactions, and observations of our students as PEOPLE. The questions we ask include, “Does this student understand differential equations?” But they also include questions like, “Does this student pursue justice? Does this student have faith? Does this student love God and neighbor?” And I can’t think of a single faculty member who would not say that these latter types of questions are the more significant.

Something in this vein was how I responded to our interlocutor’s question. And to be honest, they didn’t seem to know how to react – which says something to me about the uniqueness of Cambridge. For we are pleased when members of our community describe Cambridge as a family. That’s what we want. And we recognize that not everyone feels that way, that not every student yet feels that Cambridge is a family. But that’s our goal. For the glory of God and the good of our students. Every stinkin’ one of them.