Testing has become the end-all, be-all of the public education reform movement. The idea seems quite sensible, that holding students (and teachers) to certain objective standards incentivizes both of these stakeholders to work harder and achieve their goals. It also seems reasonable to use the results of those tests as measures of the quality of education at a school. Well, to all who believe that testing is the panacea for what ails public education in America today, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.
A recent report conducted by a who's who of educators has been following the effectiveness of 15 testing-related programs in public schools. Contrary to the rather heated, ideological, and non-evidence-based rhetoric that typically leads attempts at reform, this blue-ribbon panel found the testing programs that are presently in vogue to be ineffective and potentially harmful to attempts to improve public education.
Here are some of their findings.
The panel concluded that "adequate yearly progress," as measured by these tests, is minimal, below what is considered even statistically small improvement. And here's something that most people don't know; the testing, which is a proxy for No Child Left Behind accountability, is intended to assess school performance, not the performance of students. Which begs the question of who or what all of these efforts are for, the schools or the students. And the research indicates that testing has even less impact on student than school performance.
The current testing programs also encourage "gaming the system" up and down the educational food chain. Students study to pass the tests rather than acquire knowledge. Teachers, who these days take the brunt of the blame for underperforming students, feel pressure to "teach to the test," which may raise test scores, but do students no favors when it comes to actual learning. School, district, and state administrators know that test scores will determine funding and, potentially, their jobs. So what does everyone do? Anything they can do to raise test scores. Of course, not only are these efforts not in the best interests of the students, but the validity of the tests (and the often-forgotten criterion of tests being a measure of the effectiveness of learning) is compromised, thus rendering any value that testing might have had moot.
Also, though not discussed in the study, we can't forget that these testing programs are part of the "educational-industrial complex" that reaps billions of dollars a year in profits. Clearly, these so-called stakeholders are more concerned with their P & L statements than what is in the best interests of students. And, as with so many other powerful industries, the testing cabal has the ear and wallets of the politicians who set policy while those who actually know a few things about education, such as teachers, don't get a seat at the policy-making table.
The bottom line here is that enormous amounts of time and energy have been devoted to testing programs that have no empirical evidence to support their value. The result? Years of time and many billions of dollars wasted.
Don't get me wrong; I do believe that there's a place for testing in schools. In any environment that sets standards to be achieved, whether school, business, or sports, some form of evaluation is necessary to assess the effectiveness of the programs in place. But testing that works is testing that is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Testing that works is testing that measures what it's supposed to measure, namely, the quality of education that students receive at their schools. And testing that works is testing that has checks, balances, and incentives in place to ensure that the tests are used by all stakeholders for the purposes intended rather than as servants to the wrong masters.