How Test Obsession Is Killing Education

Jeff Bryant

Scores on the SAT – “the nation’s most widely used” college entrance exam – made news headlines recently, and the averages are either a “call to action,” a sign of progress, or “meaningless.”

Confused? You should be. Because reports of testing data, whether they’re the SAT, the ACT, the NAEP, or some other alphabet car wreck, rarely reveal the grand aha moment claimed and are more so indicators of just how far off base the nation has gone in understanding what matters most for school children.

National Debate Is Out Of Whack

At every corner and level, the national debate about education policy is dangerously mired in squabbling about what “the data” reveal about the quality of American schooling, while in the meantime, teachers go begging for the very pencils students need to fill out the oh-so-critically-important tests.

Recent example: For some time now, the mediocre scores of American students taking internationally benchmarked tests have been posed as a “crisis.” The data prove our schools are “failing,” we’re told. And based on “the data,” whole campaigns from major corporations and political candidates exhort us to “solve this” horrific problem endangering the nation.

Now comes along a new book pricking a needle into this big, fat balloon of opprobrium. Public schools are not failing, the author, education historian Diane Ravitch, contends. And she bases her argument on, well, the data.

In a review from a local Florida newspaper, an impartial voice concurs, citing Ravitch’s recitation of data showing “notable improvements” on international tests, a narrowing of the test-score gap between African-American students and white students, and scores on the test known as The Nation’s Report Card.

What to believe: Critics of public schools are right that America should be number one in the world? Or defenders of public schools are right that public schools are doing unbelievably well given the difficult circumstances heaped upon them?

Or how about this: That maybe the vaunted data continuously extracted from massive data banks of test scores really don’t support conclusions drawn from them.

Back to those SAT test results . . .

What’s Wrong With The SAT

“The real question isn’t about why the scores went up or down,” as Valerie Strauss puts it from the link provided above, “but whether or not the results tell us anything valuable about a student’s achievement and abilities. They don’t.”

Strauss bases her conclusion on evidence drawn from a place where far too few observers of testing data dare to go – what’s actually on the tests.

Citing a New York Times interview with David Coleman, the president of the organization that owns the SAT, Strauss notes that makers of the test want it “substantially rewritten” due to its emphasis on testing for vocabulary that is “too esoteric for everyday use,” an essay section that “doesn’t value accuracy,” and a math section that isn’t “focused enough on concepts that matter.”

Problems With Tests Are Commonplace

Problems with the actual content of tests aren’t confined to the SATs. State tests used for all sorts of make-or-break decisions about students, teachers, and schools are also fraught with flawed design.

In fact, a new, in-depth series of reports from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution looks at what’s actually on state tests across the nation and concludes, “Mistakes have become near commonplace despite the tests’ high stakes.”

The reporters examined thousands of testing documents from across the country and found, “While lawmakers pumped up the repercussions of lagging scores, schools opened exam booklets to find whole pages missing. Answer-sheet scanners malfunctioned. Kids puzzled over nonsensical questions. Results were miscalculated, again and again.”

Their findings, likely the tip of an iceberg of bungled testing practices, include questions with “no right answer option, or more than one right answer,” wording that was unclear or misleading, test questions on “material never taught,” and items that “bordered on bizarre.”

To be fair to the testing companies themselves, the reporters note that “education officials failed to address why the tests were derailing or how government contributed to breakdowns,” while an “unprecedented volume of test-takers” and demanding timelines for scores “left testing contractors without enough time to figure out why something didn’t look right.”

The AJC reporters trace the problem to federal policies that “ramped up testing programs in 2006 to satisfy No Child Left Behind mandates.”

The Thousand Dollar Question

Despite the mounting evidence that testing does not revel the truth we think it does, the juggernaut nevertheless continues to roll on, as states spend billions more on ever-more expensive yet generally unproven new tests.

The impact that test data obsession has on day-to-day practices in schools cannot be overstated.

Decisions to pass or fail students, rate teacher “ineffective” or “effective,” even keep schools open or close them down are now being made to an ever-increasing extent based on scores.

Educators who now create school “reward programs” in a never-ending Skinnerian process to improve scores really believe they are “incentivizing learning.” As at least one teacher involved in these kinds of schemes recently enthused, “It is easy to teach them when they know they have these nice rewards.”

In the meantime, skeptics like Strauss pose the $1,000 question more people need to ask: “Why … use test scores for high-stakes purposes when the scores have very little, if any, meaning?”

Start With Saying “Stop”

Does this call for abandoning testing altogether? Of course not.

In a recent dialogue published in Education Week, two authorities on education testing point to a potential way out of this mess.

One expert, Bob Linn, warns, “Raising the stakes for our test-based accountability systems so that there will be consequences for individual teachers will make matters even worse. Cheating scandals will blossom. I think this annual testing is unnecessary and is a big part of the problem. What we should be doing is testing at two key points along the way in grades K-8, and then in high school using end-of-course tests.”

Another, Howard Everson, bemoans, “The multiple-choice paradigm first used in WWI and eventually used to satisfy the NCLB requirements has proven to be quite brittle, especially when applied in every grade 3-8 and used to make growth assumptions. The quick and widespread adoption of multiple-choice testing was in hindsight a big mistake for this country, but – now – states will tell you it is all they can afford.”

No one, however, in a leadership position seems to be taking this advice.

In the meantime, accountability-crazed “reformers” believing that policy can focus solely on these numeric “outcomes” are taking the nation’s schools – and the children inside them – over a cliff.

As the country continues to veer toward the precipice, the first order of business is to shout, “Stop.”

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