Used to be there were only two things sure in this life: death and taxes. Now there are three sure things: death, taxes, and TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) tests. I was never a fan of the first two, but neither is as inestimably pointless as the latter.

Originally implemented to hold Texas schools accountable for the public funds they consume, TAKS testing has taken over classrooms, requiring teachers to spend most of their time preparing our kids for testing rather than really teaching or inspiring them. Essentially, our children are being subjected to a cookie-cutter aptitude test that measures parroted knowledge instead of practical know-how, bland memorization instead of meaningful information, and factoid inculcation instead of intellect. Of course this opinion clearly emanates from a non-standardized, un-assessed, un-TAKS’ed Texas mind, but I think the entire program completely misses the proverbial forest for the trees.

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Albert Einstein, whose teachers thought he was retarded in grade school (probably because he daydreamed too much and stared out too many windows), noted that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Let me repeat that. Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Since we recently observed the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it’s worth noting that this sentiment is echoed in the final findings of the 9/11 Commission. The mistakes made by the Bush administration and our intelligence community were not attributed to a lack of knowledge or diligence. They were blamed on a “lack of imagination.”

The TAKS does not test imagination. It tests transitory knowledge that our children absorb through rote instruction. It doesn’t test a student’s capacity for critical or original insight, creative cognition, or independent conceptualization. In other words, it’s a great test for conventionally bright kids who are destined to become capitalist lackeys primed for a slow but potentially lucrative climb up through the bureaucratic entrails of corporate America. Simply put, it prepares incurious, pliable vessels to listlessly consume prepackaged instruction and successfully regurgitate it in a prescribed, measurable manner. It doesn’t measure intelligence, but rather intellectual etiquette.

Now, I can see why intellectual etiquette appeals to the more conservative, conformist aspects of our national identity. But it will not benefit us in the long run, and it will not keep us on top of the global political food chain. What’s always made this country special and kept it ahead of the curve are our big ideas, like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, due process, the assembly line, the computer, the internet, the first national postal service, refrigeration, the sewing machine, the light bulb, the telephone, and so on.

Throughout our history, we have exhibited a strong propensity to think outside the box, explore new possibilities, and, if necessary, fly in the face of established convention. Our forefathers didn’t establish the way of life we enjoy today by achieving, recording, or relying on aptitude scores. They did it with common sense, open minds, and profound vision. The TAKS measures none of the three.

The public and political outcry that led to the creation of the TAKS was feathered a whole lot like Chicken Little. A few parents got tired of being told their children were behind the international curve on scholastic aptitude tests, that their substandard performances would keep their children from competing in the workplace, and that this national deficiency was one of the reasons so many of our jobs were being lost to smarter folks overseas. We now know those “smarter” folks overseas were just cheaper.

It’s true that kids in places like Japan score higher, on average, than our children on aptitude exams, but predictably so – Japanese culture doesn’t encourage diversity, nonconformity, or independent thinking. If our kids continue to be intellectually hamstrung by the current TAKS-based curricula, in which administrators keep learning strategies strictly focused on the test-taking tunnel, we’ll catch up with Japan, et al., in no time. But is that what we really want?

If we stay on top for generations to come, it will have nothing to do with the TAKS test. It will depend on the freedom and judgment we grant our educators in their efforts to educate and inspire our children. Correlating their performance on aptitude exams with their success as human beings or mandating that they standardize their talents and abilities to meet statistics instead of unique situations will simply squander our greatest natural resource.

Our children are no dumber or slower than we were. What’s kept us on top all these years is imagination, fostered by diversity, inspired teaching, and independent thinking. Our hopes for the future don’t rest in the hands of the docile students who excel at these tests. Our hopes for the future roil in the fertile minds of kids who are currently bored, daydreaming and staring out the classroom window.

E. R. Bills is a local construction worker and writer.