Today I want to respond to a comment I've heard many times -- most recently from my long-lost high school buddy Vihao:
"standardized education assumes everybody is the same. i say get rid of standardized tests and make curriculum more flexible to allow students to spend more time pursuing subjects they enjoy..."
I completely agree that teaching needs to involve students and speak to the things that are relevant and interesting to them. If it were possible, I'd support an IEP for every child. Check out www.longtaillearners.com for an interesting extrapolation of this theme.
But I don't believe that embracing individualized learning means we have to reject standardized testing. Let me try an analogy.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I moved to a new apartment. Except for campus and Kroger, we have to get on the highway to go just about anywhere. Since there are three ways to get to the onramp (and because we are both Type A people), we timed ourselves driving to and from the highway several times and compared. The verdict? Dhu Varren to Green to 23 going south, and Barton to I-14 going north or west. (Not that you care; this is just an analogy.)
Picking the best way to get to the highway is like improving schools. There are lots of reasonable sounding ways to accomplish both tasks, but to do either intelligently, you need some metric to use as a baseline for comparison. For roads, the metric was our dashboard clock. For schools, the best available metric is standardized tests.
You can't improve what you can't measure. The paradox here is that standardized tests can give teachers more flexibility in the way they run their classrooms.
PS - A sidenote that I have to include every time I talk about tests: many of the standardized tests currently in use are bad or really bad. This isn't because we don't know how to do better; it's because many states put in slipshod assessments hoping that accountability reform would just go away. We definitely need to devote more attention to fixing these badly designed testing systems.