Will More Testing Improve Schools? (page 4)
Across the nation, states and districts have greatly expanded the use of standardized tests to hold schools and districts "accountable" for student learning. The pending 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will most likely further expand and intensify the role of testing.
The U.S. already tests more children more often than any other nation.
Despite this, many claim that more testing and accountability based on
those tests will improve education, particularly in schools serving
predominantly low-income and minority-group children.
FairTest disagrees. We believe there is an important role for good assessment of student learning. The public deserves to know how well schools are doing, schools need to use information about student learning to improve teaching, and there should be intervention in schools which are unable to improve even when they have been provided the resources and tools to do so. None of this requires heavy reliance on results from state or commercial standardized tests. Focusing on those tests will not lead to high quality education for all children, but will instead turn schools into test-prep assembly lines that will leave many children behind. The emphasis on test results will undermine, not improve, the quality of education in schools now providing good education, and will not improve the quality of schools which most need help. It will diminish in particular the educational opportunities and outcomes for students of color and low income students.
High Stakes for Students. Decision-making about students in which a test score can override all other information--so that not passing a test leads to retention in grade or denial of a diploma regardless of other information about the student--contradicts the recommendations of the National Research Council and violates the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Low-income, minority-group, special needs, limited English proficient, and vocational students are most likely to suffer from this unfair use of tests. Such policies should be stopped.
Opportunity to Learn. Too many students attend underfunded schools in which they are denied a fair opportunity to learn. Schools serving low-income children often lack prepared teachers and good libraries, labs and technology, and they have over-crowded classrooms in dilapidated buildings. Too many schools buy test prep materials instead of real books, or force teachers to teach narrowly to the test. Neither students nor teachers should be held accountable for meeting learning goals, including test results, unless they have been given adequate resources. Once given the resources, the goal should be powerful education, not test scores.
Teaching to the Test. Many people understand it is unfair to make major decisions based solely on a test score and unreasonable to expect improvement without providing the means. Teaching to the test is more complex. "What's wrong with teaching to the test if students are supposed to learn that material?" they ask. Unfortunately, research continues to show that tests fail to assess many important areas of learning and too often focus on trivia instead of important topics.
- The group Achieve, which supports testing, found that current state tests do not match state standards and fail to assess whether students are learning higher order thinking skills.
- Studies of tests that supposedly do a better job of measuring more complex learning, such as the MCAS in Massachusetts, show they also fail to adequately assess the standards. They, too, often emphasize unimportant bits of information or rote procedures and thereby discourage thoughtful work and in-depth learning.
Schools that serve students from higher-income communities do not reduce teaching to test prep. They know their students need far more than can be measured by a standardized test. Fear that their schools will dumb-down to match the tests has led many parents in well-to-do suburbs, such as Scarsdale, NY, and Marin County, CA, to actively oppose, even boycott, the tests.
If teaching to the tests is not good enough for the wealthy, it should not be good enough for poor and working-class children. The knowledge of how to provide all children with as high quality an education as the wealthy now get exists, but the will to provide it does not.
Still, some reply, the tests will jump-start improvement, will make really weak systems better. While some schools and districts have no doubt responded appropriately to accountability demands by introducing higher quality curriculum and instruction, too many have narrowed curriculum to focus on test prep. The Center for Policy Research in Education has found this is most common in "low-performing schools." Thus, schools often move in the wrong direction, merely intensifying low-level programs that fail to produce sustained or higher-order learning. Additionally, since the tests do not assess much if any higher order learning, we have no way of knowing whether the schools are successfully making meaningful changes.
The narrow focus on test scores has not and will not lead to sustained improvement for low-income and minority-group students. Civil rights activists, parents, educators and all those concerned about education must understand that the regime of testing too often leads us away from, not towards the goal of high-quality learning for all children.
An alternative. High quality assessment is indispensable to good education, and the public deserves genuine accountability. If testing won't do the job, what will? Across the nation, in some schools, networks of schools, and districts, authentic assessment and accountability exist. FairTest can provide information about these approaches.
In Massachusetts, the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE) has proposed an authentic accountability system that focuses on the actual work teachers assign and students do in school. It also would include limited standardized testing and regular independent school reviews. Decisions about students would be made by schools and not be based on any one test score. You can obtain a copy of the plan from FairTest or at www.fairtest.org/care/accountability.html.
What you can do. Across the nation, parents, educators, civil rights activists, students and other members of the community are beginning to organize to replace high-stakes standardized testing with authentic assessment and accountability. FairTest's Assessment Reform Network links together activists from many states and districts (see www.fairtest.org/arn.htm) and provides resources to help advocates in public education, media work, and organizing. We also have research and bibliographies on standardized testing and authentic performance assessment.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
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