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Bad Testing Drives Out Good Learning

By Anthony Cody — October 10, 2007 4 min read
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In economics there exists something known as Gresham’s Law. This axiom states, “Bad money drives good money out of circulation.” In today’s economic parlance, Gresham’s Law is often described (as Wikipedia notes) this way: “Money overvalued by the State will drive money undervalued by the State out of circulation.”

If we substitute “education” for “money,” we can apply this adaptation of Gresham’s Law to the situation American public schools now find themselves in. Our government, through No Child Left Behind, has made standardized test scores the “coin of the realm"—the legal tender by which teachers and schools are judged and evaluated. In a recent exchange on the blog “Teaching in the 408,” veteran teacher Nancy Flanagan offered this perspective: “NCLB has put the bright lights on some pretty awful schools...but stops short of pushing 21st Century learning skills (synthesis, analysis, creativity, collaboration) in favor of the multiple-guess and fact regurgitation. NCLB has settled for rote presentation and narrowed curriculum, a disservice to kids who deserve more and better of everything—resources, teaching, attention, depth, etc.”

Blog author TMAO replied: “There’s nothing here that says ONLY teach basic skills. The law says AT LEAST teach those skills. If we can’t handle the AT LEAST, of what value is the MORE?”

Does this logic hold up? I believe Gresham’s Law sheds light on the question. Standardized tests measure skills in a specific way. If one is under the gun—facing the loss of funding, or even employment—one is likely to shift teaching to emphasize the form of learning that most efficiently yields the greatest gains on these test scores. This explains the burgeoning industry in test-preparation materials, and a curriculum that looks and behaves more and more like the tests.

The curriculum that results in deeper learning, as described by Nancy Flanagan, requires a greater investment of time and resources, and does not produce a corresponding return in terms of test score results. Good instruction is being driven out by bad, because the bad is more highly valued.

Gresham’s Law also applies to decisions that are made within a school about who should receive attention and assistance. NCLB’s accountability mechanism rewards schools that devote the most time and attention to students who are “on the bubble” in meeting basic standards and are therefore most likely to have a positive or negative effect on a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress results. Recent research has revealed that as many as 3.4 million higher-achieving students in lower-income families are falling into an “achievement trap.” They meet the basic goals but are not being pushed beyond that level to excel. Under NCLB, there’s no payoff for doing so. These bright students start school achieving at high levels, but fall behind as they get older and wind up not fulfilling their potential.

The same might also be said about middle-class students who come to school far above average in readiness and achievement. They can meet the basic goals without any special effort by the school. Again, there’s no NCLB payoff in challenging them at the highest levels. It’s little wonder many ask as they get older, “Why do I need school?” Using the Gresham analogy, the mechanisms of NCLB force schools to overvalue basic goals and undervalue achievement beyond the basics.

A New Gold Standard

To rescue our schools from this devaluation of our education currency, we need to redefine that which is highly valued. Flanagan has made a start, with her list of 21st century skills: synthesis, analysis, creativity, and collaboration. Those defending standardized tests point out that their tests are efficient and “cover” the basic subjects. But in these times, when knowledge is expanding geometrically, “coverage” of a subject is an illusion. Students have to be developed as self-learners with the critical skills necessary to discern the value of information and build understanding using the skills Flanagan and others have identified.

Policymakers and the public want proof that teachers are making a positive difference in student learning. They want accountability. It’s a reasonable expectation. So it becomes incumbent on educators who want society to value the best teaching and learning to go beyond pointing out the limitations of standardized tests, and offer a new “gold standard” by which student achievement can be and ought to be measured.

This is not a simple task. To measure student achievement using the parameters suggested by Flanagan, we will need deeper standards, a more nuanced (and more costly) approach to measuring student progress, and educators who are capable of doing skillful classroom-based assessments that have wide credibility and acceptance. The beauty of this approach is that it pushes teachers to become highly knowledgeable about the daily effects of their teaching—and therefore expands student learning rather than narrowing it.

Ultimately, the only way we can defeat the low quality education currency now in circulation is to thoroughly discredit it, and offer something in its place that everyone can agree has greater value.


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