Accountability Opinion

When Less Is More

By Betty J. Sternberg — June 16, 2004 8 min read
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Fewer—but better— tests could give 'accountability' real meaning.

It is 2006. The full testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act are kicking in. Across the country, approximately 26 million students in grades 3-8 and one high school grade are being tested. Roughly 1.3 billion test pages—5.8 billion test items—are being pumped out by a handful of testing companies.

Compare this to the 2.6 million young people who currently take the SAT and the ACT each year. A stunning 10 times this number will be tested in 2006 to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.

And what will this massive testing tell us that we don’t already know? Nothing.

States that test their students in a consistent, high-quality way already know that, in general, wealthier students do much better than poorer students, nonminority students do much better than minority students, students without disabilities do much better than students with disabilities, and that there are significant gaps between urban, suburban, and rural students. Performance between male and female students varies too, depending on the subject.

What do we need, instead, to close the many gaps in achievement we know exist? We need to establish a system of education reform that begins with accountability—a reasonable amount of accountability—and provides to all children programs we know will work to close the achievement gaps.

Such an accountability system would allow rich, authentic assessment—more open-ended-response items that require critical thinking and articulate response—rather than multiple-choice-style tests that may be easier, faster, and cheaper to score, but don’t tell us nearly enough about our students. Such items require students to demonstrate deep understanding, and are more reflective of what they will encounter in life beyond the K-12 classroom.

Such an accountability system would allow us to continue to disaggregate our data in more ways than are required by the No Child Left Behind legislation—by male/female designation, for example. Most important, it would allow us to continue to emphasize and refine the use of results to change instruction to improve student achievement. This is the essential part of ensuring that gaps in achievement are addressed.

Such a system also would allow state education departments and testing companies to determine how to test students using computers. In the area of writing alone, to require the use of the laptop to compose a piece of written work and assess students on their ability to do that, rather than the current practice of having students write using pencil and paper, would cause a revolution in classroom instruction and transform our practice to reflect the real world. Where else, other than the K-12 classroom, do people compose in longhand anymore? Such a practice would require that all students have access to laptops and, thus, would address another gap, the digital divide between richer and poorer children.

Assessment is useful only to the extent that we test what is important, reasonable, and challenging. In the 1980s, Connecticut was the first state to incorporate the calculator into parts of its mathematics test. Only then did the calculator become an integral part of instruction. Only then did instruction and assessment reflect the reality of the world beyond the classroom. It is well past time to do this with the computer. But that will require energy and resources now being directed toward creating and administering more of the same tests.

I worry, in fact, that with the impending federal assessment requirements, we will not be able even to maintain the same rich assessment system we have developed for grades 4, 6, 8, and 10. Why? The annual testing of every student in seven grades presents an unprecedented crisis in the making. Testing-company insiders will admit that this is an industry whose personnel constantly move from one company to another—with firms “stealing” staffers from each other and from state education departments. Since each state negotiates independently with these companies, no one has looked comprehensively and asked if they have the resources necessary to generate results for 26 million students in a few months’ time.

Less, but better, testing would allow us to focus more on creating comprehensive education reform: efficiently and effectively devoting resources to programs that we know work to close the gaps we know are there. There are at least five elements to such a reform.

First, numerous studies demonstrate that preschool gives young children what they need to do well in school. In Connecticut, 18,000 children do not attend preschool; 14,000 of them reside in our poorest towns. I would rather take the resources we must devote to creating, scoring, and administering additional tests at grades 3, 5, and 7 (we already test in grades 4, 6, 8, and 10) and establish preschool slots for these youngsters. By lessening the gaps among students before they enter kindergarten, we have a real chance to close the gaps that increasingly manifest themselves over the K-12 continuum.

Second, we must listen to and understand the students whose achievement we are trying to raise. What do they and their parents think contributes to success? Given more choices, what kinds of schools would they attend? What kind of support do they need from families, schools, and neighborhoods?

Assessment is useful only to the extent that we test what is important, reasonable, and challenging.

In one major study, students in Philadelphia identified a caring teacher as most helpful to their academic success. This leads to the third part of a comprehensive approach to closing the achievement gaps. We must attract and retain high-quality teachers in general, and especially in areas (both academic and geographic) that are most challenging. We must attract a teaching force more reflective of our students’ races and cultures. We must attract educators who have the energy, commitment, passion, and belief that all students can learn—educators who signal to students and their parents that it is their responsibility, along with their teachers’ and administrators’ to work hard to achieve at high levels.

While the No Child Left Behind law attempts to address teacher quality, for a state like Connecticut its requirements are so minimal that they are essentially irrelevant. Just under 80 percent of our educators have at least a master’s degree. We require substitute teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree, but all regular teachers must earn a master’s within eight years of beginning teaching. We have been testing our prospective teachers since 1989, and we have a nationally acclaimed induction system tied to continuing certification. We pay our teachers well, and in return, we expect them to meet the high standards we have set for entry into and continuation in the profession.

So in Connecticut as well as some other states, the baseline issues of teacher quality raised by the No Child Left Behind Act were addressed years ago. It is the tougher issue of attracting and retaining high-quality teachers in light of the impending exodus of teachers that each state and the nation as a whole must urgently address.

Over the next decade, about half of Connecticut’s 50,000 educators will retire. The same will happen throughout the nation. This will leave us all with the challenge of meeting a tremendous need while other professions are vying for the same limited number of people. We must think differently about the profession—remake the profession—in order to attract, support, reward, and retain educators who have a passion for and a commitment to what we do.

One approach worthy of serious consideration is giving teachers who have substantially increased their students’ achievement a differentiated role: mentor to new teachers. They should be tangibly rewarded for this role. Such teachers might be retired, but interested in giving back to the profession and maintaining contact with teachers and students. Others might be currently employed, hired as recently as five years ago, and have the necessary commitment, energy, passion, and success. Funds appropriated for student assessment should be used to identify and pay such teachers differentially.

Fourth, we must take a very close look at what we are teaching and how we are teaching it. We must ensure that what we are teaching and testing are important, reasonable, and challenging to every student. We must ensure that every student has the benefit of a planned, ongoing, systematic, up-to-date, research-based program of instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies—plus a full course of study in a language other than English, as well as the arts and health and physical education. While the federal legislation provides a large amount of funding to address this need in reading, minimal funds are provided for mathematics and science, and no funds are provided for the other areas of the curriculum.

Fifth, we must keep an equally strong focus not only on the academic achievements of our students, but also on their social, emotional, physical, and mental health. An intense focus on high academic achievement for all students is the heart of what we do. This is necessary, but not sufficient, to produce informed, respectful, and respected citizens. We need an equally strong effort to improve student ethical achievement. High academic honor without high ethical behavior is no honor at all.

How likely is this balanced focus, when states, districts, and schools are judged solely by the No Child Left Behind Act criteria in reading, writing, math, and science? How likely is it that educators will resist the narrowing of their curricula to a relentless focus on just these areas tested? How likely is it that schools will focus equally on the social, emotional, and health needs of their students?

I support balanced assessment that informs curriculum and instruction. But I fear that the assessment requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act have tipped that balance. Rich, meaningful teaching will get crowded out. Curriculum development will get crowded out. Innovation and connection to the whole student will get crowded out. Renewing the profession will get crowded out.

Where, then, will the children be? Without some modifications in the No Child Left Behind law, they’ll be somewhere far behind.

Betty Sternberg is the commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut.

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as When Less Is More


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