The physician who almost single-handedly made test scores in American schools a controversial issue completed part of his medical training in Utah.
John Jacob Cannell's name has appeared in scores of educational and popular news publications as he has waged a campaign to ask one question: Why do the great majority of American children test out above average in tests that purport to be based on a national average?The "Lake Wobegon effect," a phrase he coined to epitomize what he sees as major skewing of national student achievement test scores, has become an educational catch-phrase and stirred up considerable agitation in educational circles.
Cannell was a medical intern in the University of Utah School of Medicine in 1977. While at the U., he met and married an employee, Ina Belue, who had graduated in 1974 from Brigham Young University, he said in a telephone interview.
Cannell brought his anti-test crusade to Utah earlier this year through a consumer complaint filed with the attorney general's office. The complaint was one of many Cannell's Friends for Education group has filed around the country. Each claims that a state's consumers are being cheated by commercially produced scholastic tests.
"The Utah attorney general referred it to the state's Department (Office) of Education, which reviewed it and said it had no merit," said Cannell, now a resident in pediatric psychiatry at the University of New Mexico. "That's like the fox saying the hen house is strong enough."
Cannell acknowledged that Friends for Education didn't really expect the complaints to get much official action, but they have served to publicize the group's position on testing.
"We know now, at least, that some people are aware of the fraudulent nature of standardized test scores," he said.
"There is nothing accountable about the tests at all. What they are doing is selling $1 million in good news for school superintendents. They are useful only to make educators think the problems are somewhere other than in their own districts and to deflect criticism from their programs. No matter how bad districts are, there is always improvement in their test scores."
Cannell had a good word for Utah's plan to use statewide tests of its own design. The tests, based on the state's core curriculum, will assess a student's progress within that curriculum, rather than making a national comparison.
Tests such as Utah's are better because they "expect teachers to teach to the test. When teachers teach to the test to improve scores on the nationally normed tests, it invalidates those scores," Cannell said.
Cannell became interested in the test issue as he worked with young patients in his clinic in West Virginia. They were obviously not being well-prepared by their schooling to perform as adults, he said. Even so, his state, with a widespread reputation for poor education, could boast of above-average test scores.
He researched the matter and found the great majority of America's schools had the same claim to fame.
Cannell hopes his additional training in child psychiatry will provide a platform for continuing his quest for better education in America.
"I want to devote the rest of my life to educational issues," he said. With testing well into the spotlight, he may re-focus his attention on "social promotion" - the practice of moving children through school whether or not they achieve academic goals.
"It's a cancer in American schools," he said. "They put a child into seventh grade with third-grade reading skills. They are condemning these kids to a lifetime of low self-esteem. It's no coincidence our adolescent suicide rate has tripled, the pregnancy rate doubled and teen depression skyrocketed. These kids have always been promoted without knowing what they needed to know. And standardized tests are one of the methods used to allow social promotion.
"We need to light a firecracker. A teacher who loves a child can pull it off by refusing to let the child go on before he has learned what he needs to know. Teachers who make exceptions for kids damage them. They tell a child `You're not worth it,' " Cannell said.
Friends for Education is growing, he said. The group has received funding from the Kettering Foundation to update its study of norm-referenced testing and to send results to school board members throughout the country.
That's a good start for his ultimate objective - to make American education better and more responsive to the needs of children.