Education Opinion

Do Standardized Tests Measure What We Value?

By Jack Schneider — April 25, 2014 5 min read
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On Wednesday, Michelle and Jack debated the merits of using standardized tests to measure teacher effectiveness. Today they continue their discussion of standardized tests, focusing particularly on whether such tests narrow the aims of education.

SCHNEIDER: Let’s get back to talking about standardized tests, which is what we began our discussion with on Monday. Because the way we evaluate schools today seems crazy to a lot of observers. You want people to get behind testing? Then you need to show them that the tests measure the full range of things that we want schools to do—that children are being cared for, developing as artists and musicians, learning to be citizens, having fun. Those aspects of what we want schools to do need to be included in any measure of school quality. And, of course, we can extend that to evaluation of educators.

RHEE: A legislator once said exactly the same thing to me. He said “There’s so much more to schools than test scores.” I said, “Do you have a child?” He said, “Yes, I have a daughter in the 4th grade.” I said, “Okay, if you had a choice between two 4th grade teachers, one whose students every year grew in the top 10% of students in the state academically and the other whose students dropped to the bottom 10% in the state annually what would you do?” He said, “I’d put her in the teachers classroom whose kids were in the top 10%.” I said, “What? Without going into the classroom to see whether she was caring or implementing arts programs?” The bottom line is that as a parent I determine where to send my girls based on a lot of things. Test scores happen to be one of them.

SCHNEIDER: That anecdote presents such a false choice. Not all teachers who excel at those other aspects of education are going to produce low academic growth. We don’t need to choose between those things.

RHEE: It’s not a false choice. If you would choose a teacher who scores higher on relationships with kids and lower on academic growth that’s your choice. Other parents may choose the opposite. What’s important is that we have that information to share, no? I use the top 10 and bottom 10 to show that parents absolutely will make decisions based on it (not to say that’s always going to be the situation).

SCHNEIDER: I still disagree. But more importantly, I think you need to measure what you value. If you hold teachers accountable for a narrow range of what we value, you’re going to see two very problematic consequences. First, a lot of great teachers are going to be misidentified as weak—because they’re being evaluated on only a tiny slice of what they do. And second, educators in general are going to narrow their aims in a way that really reduces the scope of what we want schools to accomplish.

RHEE: I think we can agree that what we all value is improved student achievement. And you’re right, we need to hone the tools we use to measure that—to improve standardized tests rather than write them off wholesale. Unfortunately, others have been unwilling to come to the table to have a dialogue—like the one you and I are having—about how to accomplish that. They seem to prefer rhetoric and political tactics.

SCHNEIDER: I think they’re fighting fire with fire. And I understand that the result isn’t ideal—a scorched earth. But reformers have pushed too hard on tests that are poorly aligned with the things that matter, and that are carelessly made public. Sure, we care about student achievement. But what does achievement look like? How are we defining it? And what about all the other things we care about with regard to our kids? The focus of assessment has been pretty narrow, and the messaging has been pretty poor. And so many Americans have come to understand this as the nature of testing. Tests make life worse. It doesn’t have to be that way. But that’s their experience.

Policy needs to be crafted more intentionally. And with more humility. Because these tools are extremely limited, and they are being sold as final products. Anyone who resists them is painted as an obstructionist.

Reformers need to scale back the way they talk about this stuff. Because they’re going to poison people against assessment and evaluation. And I do happen to think that those things are important if they’re done thoughtfully.

RHEE: There are people out there who want to scare the bejesus out of teachers so they are pushing this rhetoric about the fact that these evaluation systems are simply a way to fire teachers. Let’s look at the facts. Very, very few teachers have been terminated because of the new systems. That’s just the reality. Then we can move on to have the more meaningful conversations about how we can (for the vast majority of teachers) use the information from evaluations to improve teachers’ practice.

SCHNEIDER: So where are we in agreement? I’m willing to say that assessment is important and that it should be used to provide feedback about instruction. When it comes to the use of those assessments to evaluate teachers, however, I’m much less comfortable.

That said, I am willing to keep listening if what I’m hearing from you is that we can agree about the limitations of current assessment practices—that they are too narrow, that they are often mischaracterized as objective, and that they must never replace actual input from human beings.

RHEE: I certainly will not defend every single standardized test, nor the way tests are used in many districts. But I think we need an objective measure of student achievement—just like a ruler measures our physical growth and the value of a dollar tells us whether we are above or below the poverty line. And I know that you disagree with me about this, but I think standardized testing is pretty objective. I believe that, along with subjective input, it provides us with critical information.

SCHNEIDER: You’re right, I don’t think those tests are objective; not in the sense that most people define objectivity.

Of course, that isn’t to say that I see no use for them. I just think we need to really scale back what we think those tests can accomplish. I think we need to be more thoughtful about what those tests are actually telling us. And I think we need to be extremely careful about the unintended consequences that we’re already seeing.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.