Some historical perspective

One of the reasons that federal and state governments are currently so focused on testing is that for years there was no common way to find out if children were meeting grade-level expectations. Without a coherent policy about testing, each district, and sometimes even each school, chose its own method to assess learning, creating a hodgepodge of data that was not comparable.

This lack of data led to a sense that some students – often poor and minority – were not mastering basic skills, and that schools were letting children slip through the cracks. The notion of accountability is that by mandating tests and publishing results, teachers, students and parents will stay focused on the most critical objective: ensuring that all students succeed.

Accountability has taken on an increased emphasis in schools across the country as a result of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which requires that schools show evidence of “adequate yearly progress,” known as AYP, for all groups of students. Schools in years past considered to be high achieving may not make AYP if certain subgroups, such as English-language learners or minority groups, are not scoring at proficient levels. Schools that don’t make the mark must provide transfer options for their students and provide supplemental services, including tutoring.

NCLB defines national standards for achievement, but it’s important to remember that each state designates its own test for measuring achievement. Consequently, some states have higher standards than others. In addition, a number of states have successfully applied for waivers when large numbers of their schools have been considered “in need of improvement.”

The best tests

The quality of the tests and how the tests are used are the root causes of most of the controversy. Most experts agree that the best tests are ones that measure what students know in relation to what they are supposed to have learned. These tests are called “criterion referenced” or “standards based.” Tests like these, especially when they include writing or problem solving, are useful for both teachers and parents to make sure students are on track for their grade level.

However, since these standards-based tests are more difficult to create and administer, some states use commercially produced national tests to measure student learning, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, ninth edition (Stanford 9 or SAT 9). These “off-the-shelf” tests are not designed to demonstrate whether students have learned specific skills or parts of the curriculum; rather, they only show how well students perform compared to others nationally (this is called “norm referenced”). Many states have made progress toward measuring specific skills and mastery of the curriculum by gradually adding standards-based tests that are given along with the norm-referenced tests.

Unintended consequences

While the goals of accountability programs are certainly worthy, some believe that they are having an impact that is very different from the original intention.

The number one problem, many critics say, is that the tests themselves (especially the national, norm-referenced tests) are “dumbing down” the curriculum. Growing numbers of students, teachers and parents express concern that the increased emphasis on testing is encouraging a curriculum focused on rote learning and producing students who can respond to simple test questions but cannot think critically or apply their learning to new circumstances.

Indeed, it’s not surprising to think that many parents would be concerned if the tests steer teachers towards a “checklist” approach to instruction, where the main goal is to ensure that students learn a list of required facts and skills. If you think back to powerful learning experiences you had in school, they probably didn’t come while you were memorizing vocabulary words, but rather when you were pursuing something that excited you, whether it was the story of Cesar Chavez or a science project destined to change the world. It’s important that schools don’t sacrifice this kind of learning in the rush to increase test scores.

This concern is particularly relevant when the tests have important consequences, as in many states where passing a high school exit exam is a requirement for graduation.

Tests are results, not causes

The requirement to report test results of groups of students, such as English- language learners or special education students, has highlighted achievement gaps that were disguised when school-wide results were the only ones reported. In their zeal to avoid the law’s penalties, many schools and districts are focusing their school improvement efforts solely on raising the scores of these groups of students.

But recent research on successful schools highlighted by the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement suggests a more comprehensive approach to school improvement.

A trio of studies of schools where disadvantaged students succeed shows that these schools have high expectations for all students; use data to improve both student achievement and teaching; recruit, hire and support strong teachers; and have strong principal leadership.