With the school year winding down around the United States, John Oliver dedicated a segment of Sunday’s Last Week Tonight to exposing the insanity of standardized tests, “the fastest way to terrify any child with five letters outside of just whispering the word ‘clown.'”
The host opens the segment by highlighting schools’ absurd methods of pumping up students for the exams – from test-hyping parody songs to pep rallies (like one in Texas that featured the Funky Monkey mascot). But nobody’s laughing about standardized tests, which often put unfair pressure on teachers and students.
The anxiety is so real that “official instructions for test administrators specify what to do if a student vomits on his or her test booklet,” Oliver says. “And something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of kids will vomit. Tests are supposed to be assessments of skills, not a rap battle on 8 Mile road. Eminem, why did your mom make you spaghetti? She knew tonight was rap battle night.”
The standardized test explosion dates back to the Nineties and early 2000s. On his third day in office, George W. Bush announced his No Child Left Behind program, which “increased the number of federally mandated tests from six to 17.” President Obama campaigned that he would de-emphasize the heavy testing – but he’s pushed his own initiatives like Race to the Top, which emphasizes the Common Core state standards. These concepts are sound in principle but difficult to implement, leading to many states using “value-added analysis,” which ties teacher pay to student test scores.
The system is flawed in every aspect. Many of the tests are impossibly challenging, fail to reflect ability in a practical sense, include error-laden questions and are graded with shady scoring tactics. “At this point, you have to ask yourself: If standardized tests are bad for teachers and bad for kids, who exactly are they good for?” Oliver says. The tests are operated by companies like Pearson Education, which had 40 percent of the testing market cornered as of 2012. “The only test they have no hand in is the HPV test you might take in college,” the host jokes.
The U.S. has seen over a decade of standardized testing, but studies prove the achievement gap hasn’t been narrowed. Don’t worry, though – Oliver has the cure. “If all this pressure is making you feel nauseous, like you might vomit at any second, then don’t worry,” he says, bringing in everyone’s favorite standardized test mascot. “I’ve got four words for you that will make you feel better: Here comes the monkey!”