Opinion
Federal Commentary

In Testing, the Infrastructure Is Buckling

By Thomas Toch — July 24, 2007 4 min read

While most public school students enjoy the idle days of summer, the nation’s testing companies are working around the clock to help states get the results of millions of standardized state tests to parents before the start of the new school year, a deadline under the federal No Child Left Behind Act that many states may not make.

—Thomas Toch, co-director of Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank.

44commentary Toch

The tests are the linchpin of Washington’s efforts to promote higher standards in public education by cracking down on schools where students don’t measure up. But No Child Left Behind is overwhelming the nation’s testing infrastructure, and the result has been troubling: Instead of encouraging schools to raise the level of rigor in classrooms, the law is giving them powerful incentives to do just the opposite.

The testing system is beset by a host of problems: a shortage of the experts who ensure test quality, intense competition among testing companies that has led to below-cost bidding, underfunded state testing agencies, and the sheer scale of the NCLB testing requirements.

Together, 23 states added more than 11 million tests in the 2005-06 school year to comply with the law, pushing the total number of NCLB tests to 45 million. Test booklets have to be sent to and collected from nearly every public school in the country, and the results scored and reported back to the parents of every tested student under super-tight NCLB timelines—a massive logistical challenge.

Instead of encouraging schools to raise the level of rigor in classrooms, the law is giving them powerful incentives to do just the opposite.

Evidence that the system is buckling under this pressure isn’t hard to find: Beset by misprinted tests, faulty student information, scoring glitches, and other troubles, Illinois earlier this year released its 2006 No Child Left Behind results just days before students sat for the state’s 2007 tests; more recently, Florida announced that it had misreported the results of 200,000 reading tests.

But arguably the most damaging consequence of the testing crisis has taken place off the public stage: The problems plaguing testing have led states to gravitate to tests under the No Child Left Behind law that mainly measure low-level skills. They are using tests with a surfeit of questions that require students to merely recall or restate facts rather than do more demanding tasks like applying or evaluating information, because such tests are cheaper and faster to produce, give to students, and score.

The problem is that these dumbed-down tests encourage teachers to make the same low-level skills the priority in their classrooms, at the expense of the higher standards that the federal law has sought to promote. Teachers and principals are rational people. If their reputations, and even their jobs, are tied to their students’ test scores, as is true under No Child Left Behind, they are going to feel tremendous pressure to stress the rote skills that the exams test most often.

Testing-industry leaders say that states are backing away from or abandoning outright open-ended questions, which stretch students by requiring them to produce their own answers, because they are more costly and more time-consuming to use than multiple-choice questions. As a result, close to half the students tested under NCLB nationwide in the just-completed school year saw only multiple-choice questions.

By the measure of how much money states spend on No Child Left Behind-law testing, it’s hardly surprising that we’re getting simple-minded tests.

In addition to lowering teachers’ sights for their students, such tests produce an inflated sense of student achievement. Scores on reading tests that measure mostly literal comprehension are going to be higher than those on tests with a lot of questions that measure whether students can make inferences from what they read.

The same is true in math. In a study by the University of Colorado at Boulder testing expert Lorrie Shepard, 85 percent of 3rd graders who had been drilled in computation for a standardized test picked the right answer to the problem 3 x 4 = ___, but only 55 percent answered correctly when presented with three rows of four X’s and asked how many that represented.

Workforce experts, of course, say American students will need higher-level skills to compete successfully for good jobs in the new global economy.

By the measure of how much money states spend on No Child Left Behind testing, it’s hardly surprising that we’re getting simple-minded tests. Despite testing’s tremendous importance to school reform, under the law states typically spend about one-quarter of 1 percent of combined federal, state, and local school revenues on their statewide testing programs, or about $20 of the more than $8,000 spent per student.

Next year, things are likely to be worse, when states have to administer another 11 million standardized tests after an NCLB science-testing requirement goes into effect.

But so far, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has sidestepped the testing problem. Testing under the law is a state issue, she has said, and ensuring that tests measure high-level skills goes “beyond what was contemplated by NCLB.”

But the Bush administration can’t have it both ways. It can’t say it wants high standards for all students and then sit on its hands when it becomes clear that a key part of the No Child Left Behind reform plan is working against that goal.

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