|Just show us the tests.|
There is a solution to many of the criticisms about student testing in America. It is relatively simple, inherently democratic, and may answer—or begin to answer—some of the fundamental questions critics raise. We are all familiar with these persistent areas of complaint:
- Tests are about memorizing and regurgitating facts; they narrow the curriculum.
- Tests don’t test what is really important.
- Tests are too easy. They are set at minimum levels.
- Tests are too hard. The standards are unrealistically high.
- Tests are unfair. African-American and Hispanic students fail in large numbers.
- Tests cause unhealthy anxiety for students. They fear failing a test that could fail them for an entire year of school.
- Tests have questions about values.
- There’s too much testing.
What action will address such criticisms? It is, quite simply, to show the tests to the public and to parents—to produce enough versions of tests so that one can be made public each year. To paraphrase the popular catchphrase from the film “Jerry Maguire,” this is a “show us the tests” approach. And it may be the best route educators and government officials have to public acceptance of the tests and engagement in their refinement. Showing a few sample test questions or a practice exam will not do. We should show the public and parents nearly all of the test questions used or an entire form of the test, year after year, and we should show them how well students did with the various test questions.
For parents, the best plan is that they see their children’s actual tests, along with the children’s answers. For the public at large, we should make the tests and the test results widely available by publishing them in newspaper supplements, duplicating and distributing such publications, and putting the information on the Internet. Nothing will be more powerful than showing the tests and the results to the public and to parents. It has the potential to dramatically alter the kinds of discussions we are currently engaged in, and lower the temperature of the testing debate.
Skeptics may ask, “Haven’t we already spent a lot of time in nearly every state talking about standards and tests?” Yes, but much of the discussion has been at an abstract level. Showing the tests can change this. It is one thing, for example, to agree on a standard saying that students will “select and use appropriate units and instruments for measurement to achieve the degree of precision and accuracy required in real-world situations.” But it is something else again for parents and the public to see, in real terms, what students are asked to do on tests to meet this standard—and how well the students do it.
We can show how well minority students do on specific questions and on the test as a whole, and see in more specific terms the gaps in achievement we must reduce. We can keep track of progress in narrowing the gaps.
What is standing in the way of such an approach? Why would we not show the tests? Here are some reasons:
- Cost. People say it costs too much to produce versions of tests to make public, even though many states now are spending the financial equivalent of a Big Mac and fries on tests for students that they pay $6,000 or more per year, per student to educate. Those who believe it costs too much to actually show parents these important barometers of achievement have not fully considered the costs of not doing so. As controversies over state exams build and as the so-called testing backlash continues to develop, the price we pay for a chance at greater understanding and increased cooperation may seem a wise investment indeed.
- Controversy. Showing the tests could, of course, cause greater controversy to arise over standards and assessments. Inevitably, some of the test questions will be poorly written or in some other way flawed. And at least initially, many of these problems will be blown out of proportion. But we should acknowledge that we already have controversies over tests—and no discernible plan for solving such disputes, so long as the tests are kept secret. If we disclose the tests, we will be more likely to work through these controversies, make necessary changes, and build public support.
- Test Production. States buy nationally normed tests whose publishers are likely to resist the “show the tests” approach because they customarily use the same tests year after year. The answer to this obstacle is simple: Don’t buy tests, even if they are cheap, unless a form of the test, or the majority of the test, can be shown to the public and to parents every year. We may have to pay more for a test that we can show, but it will be worth it.
- Continuity. We are told that we can’t measure progress if we change tests every year. But showing one form of the test every year isn’t changing tests. States can show the tests every year and measure progress each year. It’s being done now.
Showing the tests will help students in two important ways. When parents, teachers, and the public understand and agree on standards and tests, students will be more likely to get the instruction and the community support they need to learn what is expected. And students’ anxieties about the tests can be greatly reduced when they and their parents have seen previous tests. Removing some of the fear of the unknown will go a long way toward removing students’ fears about tests.
Showing the tests also is the best way to address the backlash by parents and by some students who have refused to take state tests. If parents, the public, and educators are able to see the tests and to gauge how well students who take them do, it will not take long for some agreement on the tests to emerge. There will be agreement on either of the following two propositions:
- The tests are not good and need to be replaced or abandoned; they don’t measure important things that students need to know; being able to pass them does not indicate much about what a student is learning.
- The tests are satisfactory; they may need to be improved; they do measure important things that students need to know; being able to pass them indicates that a student is gaining key skills and knowledge.
There are no perfect tests. But when a consensus of opinion forms around one of these two views, a state will be able to plan what to do next, rather than being caught in a circle of conflicting, often abstract arguments.
If costs are the primary reason given for not showing the tests, how much are the costs? These would not be negligible, but for most states, they would be manageable, especially if the costs were made a part of the planning for tests. Despite the large total-spending figures that are often cited, the truth is that student testing in America has been done on the cheap and in secret. Neither is the best strategy.
For many years a student’s SAT scores were not reported to the student. We may soon come to think that it was just as bizarre not to make tests public.
As states develop tests, they can plan for the extra forms of the tests to show to the public and to parents each year. This planning reduces the costs. States should simply budget for showing the tests as a cost of doing business. Initially, for example, the tests can be released only at some grade levels, not for all grades, to determine the effects of such a program and to keep costs lower.
Showing the tests will change the focus of the debates about standards and assessments for the better. It will reduce anxiety for students, lead to improvements in the tests, and provide a solution to some of the vexing debates that are emerging over the role of testing and standards in our schools.
Making tests public, rather than keeping them secret, also can lead, ironically, to less teaching to the tests. If we show the tests year after year, the debates and conversations we have about testing may turn increasingly away from what is on this year’s test and toward larger questions of what we expect children to learn. Parents and the public will come to understand that each test is a snapshot of only part of the skills and knowledge that students are expected to learn.
We may soon, in fact, come to think that it was bizarre not to make the tests public, just as today we cannot fathom that for many years a student’s SAT scores were not reported to the student. In those days, only the college or university received the scores. Student and parents were believed to be unable to understand the scores or unprepared to handle the psychological impact the scores might carry.
It’s time to rid ourselves of that mentality once and for all. It’s time to “show us the tests.”
Mark Musick is the president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta and the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress.