Education Letter to the Editor

What We Gain in Scores, We’re Losing in Learning

May 15, 2007 1 min read

To the Editor:

Discussions about rising state test scores often obscure deeper questions: What do score gains mean? Is student learning really improving?

Proponents of Reading First, for example, use rising state scores to claim educational effectiveness (“State Data Show Gains in Reading,” April 25, 2007). Others use discrepancies between state test results and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to argue that state standards are too low (“Not All Agree on Meaning of NCLB Proficiency,” April 18, 2007).

In fact, the changes may not be meaningful. Decades of research show substantial score inflation caused by teaching to the tests and narrowing of the curriculum.

Teaching to the test is like holding a match to a thermostat: The gauge reads warmer, but the room is not. Worse, over time the room gets colder. Similarly, as scores rise, students often learn less—less in tested subjects as content narrows to focus on boosting scores, and less in untested subjects that get shorter shrift. In addition, the tests ignore too much important learning, particularly higher-level thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, to say nothing of creativity.

A regimen of test preparation that pumps up scores while narrowing the curriculum leaves students in low-quality schools even further behind their more advantaged peers.

Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act presents the opportunity to overhaul federal education law to support better learning for all children, not just produce inflated test scores. The “Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind,” now signed by 121 national education, civil rights, disability, and civic organizations, outlines a better path forward.

Monty Neill

Co-Executive Director

National Center for Fair & Open Testing


Cambridge, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week as What We Gain in Scores, We’re Losing in Learning