Education Opinion

Why Has the Dominance of Standardized Tests Persisted?

By Jack Schneider — February 24, 2015 7 min read
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In the first post of their conversation together, Jack Schneider and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville discuss the role of standardized testing in public education.

Schneider: Standardized tests have played an increasingly central role in public education for the past two decades—a fact that troubles a number of key stakeholders. Parents worry about their children being over-tested. Teachers find their work constrained and perceive themselves to be under attack. And scholars have raised serious questions about the unintended consequences of testing.

Yet the dominance of testing persists.

As former Secretary of Education for the state of Massachusetts, maybe you can provide some insight into why opposition to testing has not led to change.

Reville: It’s important to put testing into perspective. The tests were designed to have diagnostic value in helping teachers and students understand what had been learned. They were designed to have accountability value in giving taxpayers, parents, and policy-makers an indication of how well students and schools were performing—and in many cases, policy-makers insisted on test-based accountability as a prerequisite for greater investment of public funds. And third, the tests were conceived as an instrument for achieving greater equity in education by drawing attention to the gap between children who were being well-served by public schools and those who weren’t.

Over the years, various groups have opposed testing for a variety of reasons. Some never wanted accountability introduced into the education sector in the first place. Others questioned the validity and reliability of particular tests. Some believed that testing narrowed the focus of education to the tested subjects. Others felt testing results were being used inappropriately, for example, in evaluating teacher performance or preventing students from graduating. Recently, a number of critics have questioned what they see as an excessive amount of time devoted to testing, while still others see tests as a threat to local control or to their own children’s status within the education system.

Notwithstanding these many reservations, as you point out, Jack, testing has persisted. Why? I think there are several reasons.

1. Education is expensive. Taxpayers, in these times of strained public resources, want to know that their increasing investments in education are actually leading to educational improvement. Therefore, as in most areas of human endeavor, society wants accountability, clear indicators of success. Education, as a field, can no longer maintain that our work is so intangible, so intuitive that it can’t be measured. We have to be clear about our goals and how we know they have been achieved. Evidence is important. Accountability is here to stay.

2. Equity advocates—those who campaign for fair treatment for those who have historically been least well served by our schools systems—demand that we keep track of who is succeeding and who is not.

3. Our future prosperity as an economy and as a democracy depends on educating all of our students to high levels. In order to achieve the goal of readying all students for success, we need to keep track of who is ready for college and career and who is not.

4. In order to improve our strategies for educating children, we need evidence, demonstrations of mastery, to tell us which teaching strategies are effective and which are not. Testing results can be powerful diagnostics which point the way to effective educational prescriptions.

5. Before passing students on to the next level of the education system, we need to know that they have mastered the skill and knowledge which predict their success at the next stage of their education.

To be sure, some tests are blunt instruments and not nearly as effective as they should be in authentically measuring student learning. There are excesses of testing. Some of our tests are being used for purposes to which they are not suited. While there are tests worth teaching to—tests that demand complex demonstrations of student mastery—there are some tests which trivialize knowledge and skill. These and other problems can and should be corrected.

There is no doubt that we can do better at developing the testing tools to inform our improvement and accountability systems in education, but my prediction and hope is that some form of restrained yet authentic testing will be a continuing feature of American public education.

Schneider: In the abstract I have no problem with accountability. But the most important question we need to ask is accountability for what?

If schools belong to the parents and community members whose children and tax dollars flow through them, shouldn’t we consider the values held by those people? Research indicates that stakeholders are concerned with far more than the acquisition of content knowledge. They want schools to help young people develop into happy, healthy, and well-rounded human beings. So why aren’t we holding schools accountable for producing socially and emotionally healthy children? Why aren’t we holding them accountable for providing adequate access to the arts? Why aren’t we holding them accountable for fostering a sense of joy and discovery?

Asking “accountability for what?” also highlights another defect in our current approach to testing: the fact that our tests don’t have a tremendous amount of construct validity. What I mean is that we can pretend that current standardized tests measure academic achievement—imagining that high marks on such tests indicate intellectual accomplishment. But they don’t. You simply cannot measure something as complex as true knowledge with a tool as crude as a multiple choice question.

As a separate critique, I would add that holding schools accountable for the same results without establishing an equal playing field—by providing equal access to resources, and by fostering student diversity—is inherently unfair.

Reville: I couldn’t agree more that education should help our children become happy, well-rounded people. None of us would consider our kids well educated if they were only proficient at English, math, and science—the subjects we now test. These subjects are necessary but not sufficient to becoming well-educated. That said, I do think that state testing should remain limited to a few key subjects, leaving room for local education officials to craft their own curriculum, instruction, and graduation requirements. If local educators want to test in these subject areas, they can do so.

I do acknowledge a problem with our current systems of accountability. But the problem is less about the tests and more about the way schools respond to the tests. Here’s the problem: policy-makers have asked schools to do something that they have never, in our history, been asked to do—to educate all of our students to levels previously reserved for an elite few. It turns out that it takes more time to educate all to a high standard than to educate just a few to a high standard. Since schools are being held accountable for their performance in a few key subjects and since schools and communities have been generally unwilling to increase the amount of time devoted to schooling, educators are stuck. If they take more time to instruct in the key subjects, which they generally do, that time must come at the expense of other subjects; so the curriculum gets narrowed. An alternative approach would be for policy-makers to say: “We are now asking schools to do more than ever before—achieve world class standards in a few key subjects, provide a well-rounded curriculum, attend to the development of 21st century skills, and nurture the social-emotional development of children; and they simply cannot do it in the same limited amount of time allotted for basic achievement in a few core subjects.” If we want schools to succeed in accomplishing all the tasks we’ve assigned to schools, we will have to expand school time and pay for it.

Another problem is that many of these subjects and the social-emotional qualities you mention present substantial challenges when it comes to testing. There is now a vigorous and healthy conversation about having schools and accountability systems pay more attention to social-emotional qualities like persistence, executive function, restraint, grit, interpersonal skills, etc. More work needs to be done on how to teach these subjects and how to measure improvement in these important areas because we don’t yet have good tools, tests with construct validity, to measure progress in many of these areas. What’s a good measure of executive function, grit, or student engagement? How do we rate students’ appreciation of the arts, creativity, or ability to collaborate? We need to develop better measurement tools in these areas while simultaneously developing curricula and instructional methods that will allow teachers to address these subjects. In this area, we’re getting closer but not yet ready for prime time.

Jack Schneider and Paul Reville will continue their discussion on Thursday.

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.