George Lucas Educational Foundation

To test or not to test? This is NOT the right question

To test or not to test? This is NOT the right question

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Anyone who is interested in the fate of education reform in the U.S knows about the heated debate around standardized tests ongoing in all media. The most of the media share a sentiment which sounds like: “all current data show no big improvement in student learning outcomes expected after NCLB had been voted for, the reason for not having expected growth in learning outcomes is that teachers have been teaching to a test, the reason for teachers teaching to a test is NCLB, hence, we have to change the law and take out standardized testing.”

First, I would like to point out at a contradiction no one seems to notice: if teachers do indeed teach to a test, why are test results so low? If you want to pass a driving test, you study questions and you practice, and as the result you get your driver’s license. Why does not this happen in math, or reading, etc. (for decades!)? Is it really a problem with using tests, or there is something deeper which should be addressed? I have a feeling that there are people who are looking for a scapegoat to explain why after 14 years of implementation of the law and hundreds of millions spent on it the state of education has not changed much. And here it is – testing! After testing became mandatory, teachers failed to teach! Well, “after that” does not mean “because of that.” If teachers have been teaching to a test and tests results are low, blaming tests for that should be the last thing to blame.

Second, I do not know a single author who would loudly say: “I am against accountability in education, we do not need to know what students learned.” If someone had said that I would understand his or her position and would argue why accountability is important and should be the part of the system. But if an author is not against accountability in education, he or she is automatically for measurability in education, and has to offer his or her vision on what to measure and how to measure. It means in turn that the author has to critically analyze the current system used to measure learning outcomes of students and to offer a specific way to improve it, or should describe a brand new system which should be used to replace the current one.

The same approach should be adopted by everyone who is criticizing teachers and school for not teaching students creativity. Everyone who provides criticism of the development of developing critical thinking skills (for example) should either (a) state that he or she does not want to know if students actually had the skill developed, or (b) offer a specific instrument for measuring the skill, or (c) accept the fact that he or she does not know how to measure the skill he or she finds the most important for students to have.

There is no paper criticizing standardized testing which would offer a specific solution to improve the situation. But they all have a common factor, they all call for investing more money in education. Having not enough money becomes another common blaming target. But there is no such thing as enough money, there is no industry or human practice where people would say: “Stop funding us, we do not need more money any more.” Of course, education needs investments, but how do we know that new money will make change we need, considering that old money did not make it? The structure of investments is more important than the volume. Vast amount of money goes somewhere around education: to study what a 7th grade math teacher needs to know (I suggest the answer, he or she needs to know math at least as the 7th grader), for developing new tests (happening every year, in every district, or a state, or at the federal level), for rewriting standards (99% of the topics students need to learn in math, physics, chemistry has not changed for more than a century, do we really need brand new standards every few years?). The new version of the law has to address the fundamental principles used for distribution of the funds across the system of education, constructing the hierarchy from the top (buildings, teacher wages, teacher preparation, communications, textbooks), to the bottom (everything else).

In conclusion, the question “do we have to continue using standardized test?” leads the discussion away from the actual issues which have to be addressed and resolved. At first, everyone has to make a clear statement against or for accountability, and then talk about mechanisms, procedures, tools which should be used to let us know (if we want to know) what students learned.  And in the end, someone, somewhere has to take a look at the current structure of expenditures related to education (on all levels) and tell us which did and which did not help students to learn. Otherwise in about 10 years the upcoming reincarnation of the law will be criticized again for not making the change everyone would have hoped to be made.

Examples of the sources:

1. Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time to Move Beyond Test-Focused Policies, By Kevin G. Welner, William J. Mathis, Feb. 2015, http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/esea

2. Why reports of progress on No Child Left Behind rewrite may not be a good sign by Valerie Strauss, Mar. 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/03/12/why-repor...

3. Five reasons standardized testing isn’t likely to let up by Valerie Strauss, Mar. 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/03/11/five-reas...

4. New York Times Fails Education Reform – Again, by Daniel Katz, Mar. 2015, http://danielskatz.net/2015/02/22/new-york-times-fails-education-reform-...

5. In Defense of Annual School Testing, by Chad Aldeman, Feb. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/07/opinion/in-defense-of-annual-school-te...


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