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Escaping the Dark Ages of Standardized Testing

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Standardized tests have gotten a bad rap, and for good reason. Many students take too many "bubble tests," as some derisively call them, and those tests create perverse incentives for schools to drill their students on mostly basic skills in English and math. Just a few years ago, however, states banded together to create common standardized tests that seek to defy that old model by assessing higher-order skills, which are the DNA of an innovative workforce and involved citizenry. Now, as those tests get ready for prime time, some states are bailing out, claiming the tests are too expensive or that schools lack the technology to deliver the tests' innovative computer-based questions.

Those might be valid reasons for states to back out, but there is no excuse for remaining in the dark ages of testing. As states consider the future of testing, they would do well to keep the following facts in mind:

Good tests cost money

Testing costs will go up in some states that adopt the common tests, but they may well decline in at least as many others. Estimates for common tests range from roughly $23 to $30 per student per year. Some states currently spend scarcely $10, and they probably get what they pay for. It's worth paying more for tests that evaluate students on their ability to think critically, solve complex problems, show their work, and explain their reasoning, as the common tests do.

Yes, that is a tough call when states are starved for money. Yet as Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute has noted, the cost of the common tests comes to less than one percent of a typical state's per-pupil funding. Surely it's worth spending a bit more for something as critical as tests.

Technology upgrades can pay off

Technology has the potential to transform teaching and learning. It is already sparking a revolution in standardized tests. Computers can prompt students to perform more complex tasks that can't be gamed the way multiple choice questions can. They can also adapt to student performance in real-time, giving top performers tougher questions -- and lower performers easier ones -- as they move through the test. This adaptability allows the tests to gauge the performance of high flyers and struggling students much more accurately than conventional tests can. States that stick with paper and pencil tests will be left behind.

Good tests aren't enough; states have to set the right bar for passing them

Study after study (including ours) has shown that states set their tests' "cut scores" -- or the scores student need to pass -- in wildly different places. Take, for example, a fourth-grade girl who passes Connecticut's state math test with flying colors. That same girl might not have passed by a long shot had she lived in Massachusetts or Missouri, because those states set a much higher bar.

One big attraction of common tests is that they encourage states to come together in a critical conversation about where to set their cut score. All eyes will be on them, so they can't very well set it low. As state leaders strive to attract business investment, they realize that they need a skilled workforce to compete with other states or even countries. High expectations and strong results send a clear signal to such investors. States that opt out of common testing should take this to heart, too, and pin their cut scores to challenging national or even international expectations.

The anti-testing zealots are pointing states in the wrong direction

As they watch states drop out of the common tests, testing foes of every stripe are sharpening their knives. They see an opportunity to do away with or radically shrink testing in schools. Many on the left see the common standardized tests as more evidence that testing has run amok, while many on the right see them as an intrusion into states' rights. This is bipartisan folly.

There was no golden age before standardized tests when all teaching was inspired and all children -- poor or rich, black, Hispanic or white -- left school ready to take on any challenge. Instead, the lack of any standard measure of student success made it all too easy to turn a blind eye to the yawning achievement gaps that put poor and minority students at a severe disadvantage.

Standardized tests are here to stay. Fortunately, the common testing movement reflects a growing commitment to making standardized testing better than it has ever been. Whether or not states choose to join this movement, they should commit to the broader principles of quality and rigor that have inspired it. Otherwise, their standardized tests will deserve all the bad press they get.