Thursday, May 19, 2011

Common and standardization are not the same thing

I once had someone try and convince me that top-down mandated, standardized exams, that were made by only a few, but forced upon the many, were not in fact standardized exams - rather they wanted me to believe, so very badly, that they were merely common exams.

The idea being that if we simply called them common, and not standardized, then the exams would be inherently less objectionable. I mean who can argue with something as warm and fuzzy as common?

In my heart, I knew they were standardized but I struggled to put what I knew to be true into words... until now. John Spencer's video and post titled Suffocating in Standardization made the distinction between standardization and common crystal clear.

These "common" exams weren't common by John's definition. There was nothing democratic about how these exams were being "shared". I wasn't free to take it, change it, and or trash it. I had no choice over whether they were appropriate for my students. There was nothing democratic or fair about these "common" exams.

The only thing common about these exams was that we were all forced to do them. Because political power was required to ensure mandated uniformity, these exams were by definition standardized.

At the heart of the illusion of standardization is a deeply misguided belief that providing a great education to all children requires all kids to get the same education. Until we understand that we can not provide learners with their needs by pretending that everyone has the same needs, standardization will continue to look like the solution rather than the problem it really is.


  1. "At the heart of the illusion of standardization is a deeply misguided belief that providing a great education to all children requires all kids to get the same education." I've been meditating on differentiation throughout this year and this comment is at the root of it. Many of my impulses to differentiate become blunted or confused by the impulse to assess students in an undifferentiated manner. Certainly my province's standardized tests and our school's common assessments played a part in this. I think the distinction between standard and common is important. I see why they can become confused though. I imagine the consensus within a body of teachers may mask the initiative of a small group influencing a lightly committed group of colleagues to follow an action plan. The result might appear not so different to teachers than the provincial department's tests. I cannot go beyond that because here in Saskatchewan we are not touched by national standards or national testing. I remind myself that the entire educational infrastructure of Saskatchewan is smaller than urban systems such as Toronto and Vancouver. A test designed in Regina for the province is not so very disconnected.

  2. Hello from a new reader. I enjoyed the style of the presentation, not just the content. I appreciate your point about things we have in "common" (or things that are part of the "commons"). If it's truly "shared", I have two important options: to refuse, and to share back.

    There is something Orwellian about blurring the distinction between one-way and two-way communication, as well as between optional and mandatory "gifts".

    So, thanks for "sharing" (in the true sense).

  3. This is a very timely piece for me to read. I'm just finishing up my undergrad, and I'm debating the morality of assessment. Many schools are moving toward standardized assessments within each math unit. During my internship, I struggled to use these because they didn't suit the needs of my classroom or how I approached teaching. I thought that I was wrong for disliking these exams, but I'm glad that ethically, I'm on the right track. Common assessment (i.e. a basic principle behind the specific assessment available to be remodeled to each individual classroom and potentially to individual learners)sits way more comfortably with me. Thank you for writing this!


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