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Diane Ravitch Headshot

How School Testing Got Corrupted

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Ask almost any teacher or principal, and they will tell you that testing has gotten out of hand. The biggest complaint is directed at the federal No Child Left Behind law. The law requires that schools test all students in grades 3 through 8 once per year in reading and math. On its face, this is not an unreasonable expectation. After all, most schools were already testing children in these grades at least once a year in the basic subjects.

Testing itself is not the problem; schools have always given tests and it seems a safe bet to predict that they always will. Teachers need to know whether students have learned what they were taught. Good tests help students think about and organize what they have studied. Schools need to have a gauge of their progress. School administrators need measures of whether programs are working or not.

The reason that testing has gotten out of hand is that the sanctions attached to NCLB are onerous if any student group is not making "adequate yearly progress" on the annual tests. Thus, a school will be labeled a "failing school" if only one demographic group does not advance each year according to schedule. The schedule itself is ridiculous, since it requires that all groups reach "proficiency" by the year 2014. Even sillier is that the law does not look at the progress made by specific students from year to year, but compares this year's fourth grade to last year's fourth grade, this year's fifth grade to last year's fifth grade, cohort to cohort, rather than the gains of individual children.

To avoid sanctions and stigma, many school districts are now investing heavily in test preparation activities. In such districts, teachers find that many hours each day and week are spent teaching kids to take tests, reviewing possible test questions, practicing the skills that might get tested, and so on. Layered onto the test prep activity are "interim assessments," the tests that get kids ready for the annual tests and that consume even more class time.

All of this test prep and test review narrows the time available to teach science, history, geography, the arts, or anything else that is not related to the annual test. This path leads to higher scores but worse education. This helps to explain why scores are bouncing up in fourth grade, but remain persistently flat in eighth and twelfth grades. Students are not gaining either the vocabulary or the knowledge that they need to prepare for the expectations of the higher grades.

Tests should be used to improve instruction. They should be primarily diagnostic, helping teachers understand what students didn't learn and what they are having trouble with. What teachers learn from tests should enable them to be better teachers, to see what was not well communicated during the school semester or year.

If tests are used for promotional decisions, they should be given in May, after students have had the benefit of two semesters of instruction (many are now offered in January, which is an administrative convenience). Tests should be marked promptly and their results should be available within weeks, so that they have meaningful benefits. Students can find out what they got wrong and can learn from their errors. Teachers can get another chance to teach students what they didn't learn and correct misunderstanding.

Unfortunately it is not working that way now. Tests are being used as a cudgel to beat up on teachers, principals, and schools. The reaction against the current misuse and overuse of tests may send the educational pendulum creates bitterness and cynicism.

If we want better schools, we must have a solid, knowledge-rich curriculum, one that includes history, science, geography, the arts, civics, and other disciplines, not just reading and math. We must have effective instruction based on that curriculum. Our assessments should be based on the curriculum. Sadly what we are doing today is to use the tests as a substitute for curriculum and instruction. This won't work, and it will only damage American education. We may get higher scores -- short-term -- but we won't get better education.