The hundreds of stone statues on Easter Island have been one of the greatest mysteries on earth. Located in the southern Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is over 2,000 miles away from the closest land, Chile, and 1,400 miles away from the nearest island, which is uninhabited. It is also a very small island, only 15 miles long and 10 miles wide. Yet, on this remote and small island are over 800 giant statues carved out of stone. They are large and heavy—ranging from 15 feet to 70 feet and from 10 to 270 tons. The largest ever erected weighed over 80 tons. Some of them have a separate headpiece, a cylinder of red scoria that weigh up to 12 tons. When the first European explorer discovered it in 1722, the island was almost uninhabited, with just a few thousand people living in poor conditions without any advanced technology. The explorers did not find any large animals or trees that could be used to help move and lift the statues. How could the islanders have carved, transported, and erected the statues because “organizing the carving, transport, and erection of the statues required a complex populous society living in an environment rich enough to support it” (Diamond, 2005, p.81) and such a society was apparently nonexistent when Easter Island was discovered?
Although there are competing theories pointing out that human activities may not be the only cause of deforestation and ecosystem collapse on Easter Island (e.g., some scientists suggest rats as another contributing factor), Diamond provides a convincing “example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its resources.” A significant driving force behind the overexploitation was the race to erect bigger statues. I can’t help making the connection between Easter Islanders’ race to erect the statues and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and proposed plan for reauthorization of NCLB, which has already set American education on a race of test scores for a decade. Some may object to this metaphorical connection by arguing that test scores represent the quality of education a school provides, the performance of a teacher, and students’ ability to succeed in the future. But the chiefs and priests on Easter Island also believed that the statues represented the health and power of their clans, the performance of their members, and promise for a more prosperous future. Test scores have no doubt become American’s stone statue in education. America wants to outscore other countries on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS, just like the Easter Island’s rival clans wanted to out build each other. NCLB and Race to the Top force states, schools, and teachers to outscore each other with either a club or carrots or both. Whether it is the complex AYP calculation formula or the proposed even more complex value-added-measures, the ultimate measure remains scores on standardized tests. Whether it is the prescribed punitive measures of NCLB or the proposed “reward for excellence” by Obama, the criteria are the same: test scores and the intention no different: outscore others. In their race to build bigger statues, Easter Islanders put increasingly more resources into carving, transporting, and erecting statues. Likewise, in America’s race to obtain higher test scores, American schools have invested more resources in raising test scores. A large proportion of schools have spent significantly more time on the tested subjects (math and reading) and reduced time for other subjects and activities. Teachers have spent more time preparing students for standardized tests and focused more time on tested content. Millions of hours are spent each year for students to take the standardized tests. Billions of dollars are spent each year on testing or simply measuring whose statue is larger.
Just like the Easter Islanders’ obsession with building statues damaged their ecosystem, America’s obsession with test scores have already begun and will continue to damage its education ecosystem. The high stakes attached to test scores have already forced states, schools, and teachers to improve test scores at any cost—manipulating standards, cheating, teaching to the tests, and only focusing on those students who can bring the most gains in scores. Students who are talented and interested in things that do not contribute to improving scores are considered at risk and put in special sessions to improve their scores. Teachers’ professional autonomy is taken away so they can more easily forced to raise test scores. Local democratically elected school boards are rendered assistants of the federal government to raise test scores. American’s traditional educational strengths—tolerance of diversity, respect for individual difference, and celebration for creativity—are replaced with standardization so as to raise test scores. A broad and balanced curriculum is narrowed to what can be easily scripted and measured so as to raise test scores. What is more dangerous is that the Easter Islanders perhaps did not realize their imminent collapse before it was too late. Blinded by the short-term glory of their magnificent statues, they were preoccupied with creating even more magnificent ones while the last palm tree was cut down. Equally blinded by the potential of common standards and testing programs to improve test scores, the current administration is ignoring the real civil rights issues facing our children: poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and unequal access to educational resources. Basking in the victorious sunshine of forcing some 40 states to change laws and policies and trade their constitutional rights to education for promised federal dollars, the Obama Administration may be getting closer to cut down the last palm tree in American education land. And ultimately, just like Easter Island ended up a barren island filled with big statues, America may succeed in raising test scores but it will likely end up as a nation of great test takers in an intellectually barren land."
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin.