For all the efforts to improve education that are made in classrooms, school board meetings, research institutions, congressional chambers and elsewhere, one factor has in many ways eclipsed them all: an intense focus on standardized testing. High-stakes tests -- flaws and all -- seem to be driving everything from what subjects are taught, to how they are taught, to whether schools are closed, to how teachers are evaluated and compensated. Schools have even experimented with paying kids for higher test scores. Sadly, the pressure to measure has even diverted schools from implementing strategies known to improve student outcomes.
Beginning with the No Child Left Behind law and continuing today with Race to the Top, the federal emphasis on standardized assessments has become so excessive that it has modified state and district behavior in troubling ways. Curricula have been narrowed, test preparation has eaten into time for other instruction, and developing higher-order competencies has been sacrificed to fostering memorization and test-taking skills.
Appropriate assessments are a crucial part of effectively educating students. But they only measure a narrow segment of what kids need to learn. So before the testing police rush in to defend their position, let's ask ourselves: What if this extreme focus on testing is driving us away from what students need? What if the current test-driven mania in the United States is wrong?
A constellation of recent reports suggests that this approach is, indeed, deeply flawed. A report released in May by the National Research Council of the National Academies found that "test-driven incentives have not consistently generated positive effects on student achievement." It concluded that, in many cases, the effects "tend to be small and are effectively zero" -- hardly the breakthrough that many so-called reformers predicted. The committee that wrote the final report said that test-based "incentives should be rigorously evaluated" -- essentially that the test-driven approach itself should be tested -- and that "policymakers and researchers should design and evaluate alternative approaches to using test-based incentives."
A paper by Marc S. Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy, also released last month, found that neither the extensive research Tucker examined nor international achievement data analyzed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development "have found any evidence that any country that leads the world's education performance...has gotten there by implementing any of the major agenda items that dominate the education reform agenda in the United States," specifically citing the "use of student performance data on standardized tests."
A key criticism of the test-driven approach prevalent in the United States comes from a recent report by Michael Fullan, a respected school reform expert, who has examined what he calls "drivers" of reform. "A 'wrong driver,'" he writes, "is a deliberate policy force that has little chance of achieving the desired result, while a 'right driver' is one that ends up achieving better measurable results for students." Fullan adds that "In the rush to move forward, leaders, especially from countries that have not been progressing, tend to choose the wrong drivers." Among the main "wrong drivers" Fullan examines is "accountability: using test results...to reward or punish teachers and schools vs capacity building."
It simply doesn't make sense to focus on test scores at the expense of programs and policies that can improve student achievement: rich curriculum; wraparound services for students; ongoing, high-quality teacher development; and adequate resources well-deployed to make these strategies a reality.
Teachers value assessments as an important tool in their arsenal. But research shows what teachers have warned about for years -- that the excessive emphasis on testing and test-prep has harmed efforts to provide students with a well-rounded education and help them develop critical-thinking skills, and has in many ways de-professionalized teaching.
These studies are real red flags. Hopefully neither they nor their messengers will be demonized. Instead, they should spur all of us concerned with improving education to take stock of current policies and practices, and ask, first, whether they have stifled broader and more effective reform efforts and, second, what we can do to get back on track to helping children gain the knowledge and skills they need to be prepared for life, college and career.