Forests, Trees, and the Dire Results of High-Stakes Testing in the United States

Forests, Trees, and the Dire Results of High-Stakes Testing in the United States

I attended primary/secondary school in the 1980–90s and took many standardized tests. With the exception of those used for college admissions in the United States (SAT and ACT), the purpose of the tests was never explained to my peers or me. We were expected to do our best, correctly fill each circle on the Scantron answer sheet, and always use a #2 pencil. The results of each standardized test would eventually be shared with our grownups, but we returned to our regular schoolwork the next day as if the testing day had never happened.

The human brain is the most complex object in the universe. As such, standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, PSAT, and MAP can never accurately portray who students are as learners. As a teacher, I tell my students that standardized tests are like looking at them through a pinhole. We also talk about the racist origins of the SAT and the College Board, which opens the door for questions about the actual goals of standardized tests. Still, I have always struggled to articulate exactly what bothers me about standardized testing — until I picked up a book about well-intentioned programs states have attempted and read about the origins of modern forest management.

In the first chapter of Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott describes the invention of European forest management in eighteenth-century Saxony and Prussia. In this period, leaders of states viewed forests as merely a timber-providing natural resource while recognizing that the primordial forests of ancient Europe were dwindling. Scott acknowledges that a certain amount of abstraction is necessary for effective bureaucracy and central management of state resources, but he goes on to describe how the so-called German model of forest management missed crucial aspects of the value of forests — which he, of course, likens to missing the forest for the trees.

A forest is a complex ecosystem, but any appreciation of that complexity was discarded in favor of timber-producing revenue. Inventories kept by forest managers reveal much about what eighteenth-century states valued. For example, trees were considered “timber,” but plants that were not cash crops were termed “underbrush” or “weeds.” Similarly, animals that were raised and considered capital were “livestock,” while other animals were considered “pests” or “varmints.”

Scott details myriad uses of forests, from shelter to places of magic and worship. The diversity of living things in a forest provided medicines and numerous valuable products (e.g., rendering resins from tree sap). This same diversity meant forests were much more resilient to pestilence and environmental damage. With the German model, forests were cleared of any undesirable organisms. Species of trees that proved most profitable were then introduced and planted in neat rows. With one species planted in geometric rows, management became predictable and straightforward. If a tree was felled, another was planted in its place. The German model became a desirable aesthetic, and countries across the world quickly adopted this model.

It took approximately 100 years for the damage and unintended consequences of this new forest management system to be noticeable. At first, the newly introduced tree species thrived. The newly planted trees could take advantage of thousands of years of soil production and enrichment resulting from innumerable organisms dying, decaying, and being subsumed into the soil on the forest floor. However, the timber yields of these managed forests quickly dwindled. The lack of diversity meant that insects that previously could only make a small impact could expand and consume tree matter on a much larger scale. The many resources the primordial forests provided humans, animals, insects, and plants were gone. Many efforts to reintroduce critical wildlife (e.g., spiders, ants) were attempted but proved too laborious to be practical.

Scott views the German forest management system as a metaphor that “illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes to isolate a single element of instrumental value.” This metaphor can be applied usefully to our current educational paradigm in the United States. Modern schools continue to serve to either produce workers (expected to happily take their place in the vast machinery of our brand of capitalism) or managers (content and prepared to manage the workers). Socio-economic status dictates which role a student will assume in life. Wealthy students attend well-resourced private and public schools and become managers, while students in poorer districts attend under-resourced and funded schools and become workers.

American schools tend to focus on monoculture. The crop they seek to yield in great numbers is high standardized test scores. Rather than investing more money in schools and districts, the introduction of programs like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has led to a myopic focus on test scores. NCLB promised to make education more equitable and close the achievement gap between White students and BIPOC students. NCLB failed to achieve its central goal, and may have even worsened the issues it promised to solve. NCLB encouraged school districts to direct funds to subjects that are featured heavily on standardized tests, such as math and English language arts, and to defund “non-core” content areas, such as fine art — with dire results. Funding for and emphasis on core classes in service of test preparation now permeates all aspects of schooling. Parents worry, students perseverate, and school leaders continue to cut funding for non-core courses to make room for more test prep. Teachers routinely share that they are merely expected to “teach to the test.” Students and parents feel the need for intense test prep, an expensive outlay provided by private companies and tutors — preparation only affluent families can afford.

I still have so many questions.

  • Before this era of intensive test prep, did schools more closely resemble the primordial forests, in which all aspects of a child’s education were addressed and included?
  • If so, how far back must we go to answer that question? Before the advent of public schooling in the United States? Before the Industrial Revolution?
  • Did they teach children to read, write, count, sort, and categorize while also teaching them to wonder, deal with longing, think of others, and see our world as an interconnected and beautiful whole? Or were they simply earlier forms of a monocultural education?
  • Do school leaders and parents see the forest for the trees?

Perhaps our focus on building and maintaining monocultural schools, which are simply brick-and-mortar test-prep factories, could explain why children are often anxious, uncertain, and unhappy.