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Accountability Opinion

Are K-12 State Tests Like a Visit to the Pediatrician?

By Rick Hess — March 07, 2022 3 min read
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The other week, I offered a few thoughts on what shifts in the political landscape over the past few decades have meant for testing and accountability. Today, I want to expand on something I touched upon there—the mixed feelings of parents in particular.

During the past two years, in response to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education gave states much leeway when it came to the annual tests and accountability requirements spelled out in the Every Student Succeeds Act. How much leeway states will have this year is a live question. Feelings are mixed, with some arguing that the dislocations of the pandemic make transparency and accountability more essential than ever and others arguing that testing and accountability is (especially now) a heavy-handed distraction.

My take has long been that while we certainly went test-crazy during the No Child Left Behind years, annual state assessments can offer much value and need to be resumed. (Now, that said, as Pedro Noguera and I discussed the other week, we should both resume tests and do more to address the many sensible concerns about how they are used.) They illuminate how students are faring in essential skills and give an arm’s length sense of how schools are doing. But given our current testing systems, with the lengthy wait for results and emphasis on school accountability rather than individual students, all of this can seem more valuable to policymakers and educational leaders than to parents.

Once upon a time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, polling regularly found massive support among parents and teachers for regular testing. (Indeed, in the early 2000s, there was polling that found just 2 percent of parents didn’t want regular testing.) Today, the picture is much more mixed, and support for state testing has markedly softened. For instance, last year’s annual Education Next survey reported that two-thirds of parents support annual testing and just 52% of teachers do.

What explains the changed landscape?

I find myself thinking of the former New York educational leader who blasted anti-testing parents, declaring, “Those who call for ‘opting out’ really want New York to ‘opt out’ of information that can help parents and teachers understand how well students are doing. . . . It’s time to stop making noise to protect the adults and start speaking up for the students.”

I was struck at the impulse to defend testing by implying that doubters didn’t care about the well-being of their kids. It might’ve been more useful to ask why those parents might think the tests were bad for their kids. For instance, those who favor testing like to argue that few parents object to taking their child to the pediatrician for a checkup and that school tests are just another kind of checkup. So what’s the problem?

It’s a good analogy. It’s true that parents generally don’t mind taking their kid to the pediatrician, even if it’s a hassle. So why would parents possibly object to state tests? Well, think about the differences. Pediatricians give your child a checkup and then provide feedback in real time. They examine and treat your child. If there are problems, the physician will identify them, explain them, and suggest next steps or solutions.

Test results, on the other hand, aren’t available until months after the test is taken and, sometimes, not until the next school year. And, really, these state tests are generally regarded less as a tool of teaching and learning than as a check on school and system performance—a rationale that rarely resonates with educators and that can be alienating to parents who trust their schools more than the tests. And, when they eventually learn how their kid fared on the state test, parents rarely know what they’re supposed to do about it.

Ultimately, then, the issue may be that state tests aren’t enough like a doctor’s visit. Just how to make the one more like the other might be the key to rebuilding broader support for annual state assessments, this spring and beyond.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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