By Julia Steiny
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our standardized achievement testing, but in what we do with said testing. Achievement data are fantastically useful. These days virtually every industry collects and analyses the best information available to make smart decisions. So the recent groundswell aimed at ending the flow of testing information is akin to insisting we all stick our fingers in our ears and holler: We don't want to hear it!
Easy now. Let the data speak. Just quit jumping to ill-considered actions.
But the situation has gotten so bad, parents are refusing to allow their children to take standardized achievement tests. Congress, seemingly stuck in brute partisanship, is arming for war over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known since 2001 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). One huge battle will be testing versus no testing. Likely it will focus on money, although the $34 per kid for state and federal testing seems a small price to pay to find out if the taxpayers' $600 trillion dollar annual investment in public education is getting results. That's trillion with a "t." We can spare $1.7 billion, with a "b," to do a check-up.
How testing became a monster.
The one great thing NCLB did for the nation was goad states into building robust data systems. Though far from perfect, even state-designed testing programs surfaced glaring racial and socio-economic disparities. Tests revealed that special-needs children and non-native English speakers often languished in segregated programs, "protected" from higher expectations. It wasn't pretty. Still isn't. But sunlight on the plight of the underserved inspired a lot of creative thinking about how to narrow the gaps. As a nation, we're grown uncomfortable with these disparities. And that's a good thing.
A very bad thing, though, was that punishment was baked into NCLB from the get-go. In the name of "accountability," the 2001 law disciplined failing schools with an a menu of escalating sanctions including humiliation and threats of state takeover — as if states had the capacity to take over schools. Annually, all schools had to meet rising achievement benchmarks with goal of having all students "proficient" by 2014. Each year that a school bombed its benchmarks, the feds and states had license to trumpet failures in the media, impose insulting oversight, and force the schools to write the parents about their failures. NCLB was a big, bad Dad that believed he'd get results by yelling louder and getting meaner.
Everyone knew that achieving nationwide proficiency in 2014 was statistically impossible. But oh well. States issued new naming-and-shaming reports anyway. Adding insult to injury, those most affected were low-income kids, segregated in forgotten, ill-supported schools where staff already felt punished enough. Partly to protect their vulnerable kids, school staff began gaming the numbers, or even outright cheating, to avoid further demoralization.
Eventually, increasing amounts of school time were devoted to test prep, effectively passing the pain on to the kids. Neither the feds, states, nor researchers recommended becoming test-prep factories. Sure enough, test-prep barely budged academic performance. But many schools argued that they had no choice but to focus on the test results because of perceived threats to their jobs. Then situation made the parents crazy. All parties blame the tests themselves. And here we are.
Exactly who is responsible for kids' learning?
Currently Finland's high-performing schools are Education's darling. Interestingly, their students are tested constantly, but to good effect. As Anu Partanen writes in a recent Atlantic piece about Finnish schools, "teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher." At the end of high school, students must pass nationally-mandated high-school exit exams, so there is a goal and objective measure of success at the end.
How schools get there is their business. The Finnish feds regularly check up on schools across the country with tests, but their purpose is to make sure the schools and kids are doing well. It's not in their culture to think that the way to produce improvement is to get all nasty at schools that struggle.
On the contrary, the Finns have the attitude that testing provides superb data to help teachers collaborate with one another, along with the child and family, to ensure each kid's success. Teachers have enormous responsibility for student learning, but they're not alone; they lead a circle of adults who own that child's success, as defined by observation as well as objective data.
By all means test, and even publish the results.
But for the foreseeable future, the feds and states need to rethink their get-tough relationship to school improvement. NCLB made it painfully clear schools can't be harangued, threatened or sanctioned into improvement. (People can't either.) So for now, collect data on the kids' achievement. And publish it. But then study it carefully, discuss it, take responsibility for it. Make sure the data becomes useful wisdom, and quit using test scores as billy clubs.