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Testing Isn’t the Problem

A robust curriculum and high-quality teaching is the answer.
A De Soto (Ill.) Grade School teacher helps a student with an assignment last fall. Illinois’ standardized test results show that the achievement gap among elementary school students is narrowing.
A De Soto (Ill.) Grade School teacher helps a student with an assignment last fall. Illinois’ standardized test results show that the achievement gap among elementary school students is narrowing.

A friend of mine is in the midst of a yearlong quest to lose 20 pounds before her high school reunion. She starts each day by stepping onto a bathroom scale to measure her progress. The results are not coming as quickly as she would like. Of course, my friend could just stop her daily weigh-ins or convince herself that the scale is of no use in her effort because it isn’t as accurate as it could be. But she knows better. So she continues the slow, tough, unglamorous work of changing her eating and exercise habits to reach her goal.

The assessments that states use to measure student achievement aren’t all that different from my friend’s scale. They are imperfect but important measures of what our students know and can do.

Students have taken tests—lots of them—for as long as we’ve had an education system. Those tests have had stakes for the students themselves, impacting grades, track and course placements, grade-to-grade promotion, graduation and eligibility for college. It was only when individual states—followed by the federal government through the No Child Left Behind Act—made school-by-school test results public and added consequences for the adults in the education system that some people pushed back, characterizing tests as “high stakes” and blaming them for the problems in our nation’s schools.

Does anyone honestly believe that all it would take to bring things like art and music back to cash-strapped schools is to put a halt to annual assessments? If enriching classroom instruction were as simple as that, I’d say, “Let’s do it!”

Imagine: No test scores, no evidence, no problems—unless, of course, you’re one of the millions of children who desperately need more from their schools. Indeed, facing the scale is tough, but just as my friend knows that avoiding it won’t help her reach her goal, eliminating the tests—or the stakes tied to them—won’t fix what ails our public schools.

The Critics Are Right?

Testing critics often claim that we’ve dumbed-down instruction and eliminated creativity from our classrooms. Those who embrace this halcyon past must never have spent much time in the schools and classrooms in which generations of low-income students and students of color have been subjected to painfully weak curricula taught by our least prepared teachers in schools and districts that generally get less than their fair share of funding. Nor can they have closely reviewed the data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which reveal stark achievement gaps in reading and math performance dating back to the 1970s—long before the advent of state tests and accountability. Likewise, they cannot have considered the results from the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which show that teens abroad have been charging ahead of American 15-year-olds in reading, math and science.

In this regard, the critics are right. Too many schools have responded to annual assessments with drill-and-kill instruction. But that’s no more the fault of tests than it would be the fault of my friend’s scale if she chose to consume only 500 calories a day. Sure she’d lose weight, but at what cost to her overall health? Drill-and-kill is similarly damaging and self-defeating. As we know from mounds of research, including a recent study conducted by the Chicago Consortium for School Research, high-quality, robust instruction delivered by well-supported teachers is the best way to achieve meaningful and lasting gains in student achievement—not test prep.

Assessments to Measure College and Career Readiness

Critics also complain that the tests most states use are not very good, so the results don’t tell us everything we need to know about students, teachers or schools. They’re right. We need much better assessments and far more information than a test score or even a set of scores can provide. That’s why the Education Trust support the state-led work coming out of the Common Core State Standards Initiative to develop more robust assessments aimed at measuring student readiness for college and careers. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore test results in the meantime. Instead, we all should be exceedingly concerned that so many of our kids don’t have the skills and knowledge to clear even the low hurdles set by many state assessments.

For example, according to a 2009 study from the National Center for Education Statistics, Michigan’s elementary math standards were among the lowest in the nation. Indeed, most of the state’s parents and community members didn’t know at the time that to be deemed proficient in math, a student only had to get about one-third of the test questions correct. Details like these make it all the more stunning that nearly 1 in 5 of Michigan’s African-American fourth-graders did not clear this very low bar.

Displaced Stress

It’s also been said that testing puts too much stress on our children. This argument felt powerful to me when my son came home from school two years ago and expressed angst about the upcoming third-grade reading and math assessments. Then I reflected on his anxiety in other circumstances: a doctor’s visit for booster shots, his first day of school, his first swimming lesson. These situations had already taught him how to cope with uneasiness, and I knew he would face many more angst-inducing situations in his future. The difference is that the outcomes from the school test had no repercussions for him, so there was no reason for him to fear it; he was manifesting the anxiety of the adults at his school. That’s when I got mad, because the American education system has a long, storied history of focusing more energy on the adults working in schools than the kids who count on them for a good education.

We have to stop blaming our measurement tools and start instituting the practices we know will lead to better results for kids. To be sure, if even half the energy some now expend bashing tests was invested in better preparation and support for our teachers, and in ensuring that the kids who most need strong instructors get them, our students and our educators would be much better off.

Amy Wilkins is vice president of The Education Trust, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels.