Standards Opinion

Am I a Part of the Cure ... or the Disease?

By Deborah Meier — May 14, 2013 7 min read
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Michael J. Petrilli posts his second entry in Bridging Differences today.

“Confusion never stops
Closing walls and ticking clocks
Gonna come back and take you home
I could not stop that you now know, singing

Come out upon my seas
Cursed missed opportunities
Am I a part of the cure?
Or am I part of the disease?”

-Coldplay, “Clocks,” A Rush of Blood to the Head, 2002

Dear Deborah,

I am haunted by the title of your post:
The Testing Obsession Widens the Gap” Could this possibly be true? Is test-based school reform reducing opportunity for America’s neediest children? Is everything for which we school reformers fight actually making things worse? Am I a part of the cure, or am I part of the disease?


“It’s OK to ask: ‘What if I’m wrong?’” you wrote last week. So let me ask it. It wouldn’t be the first time. A year ago, for example, I explored the “test score hypothesis"—a line of reasoning, undergirding much of the reform movement, that says that if we can significantly improve low-income students’ math and reading skills, as measured by standardized tests, we can significantly increase their chances of escaping poverty.

Let’s unpack this hypothesis a bit.

As it stands now, children born into poverty come into kindergarten with massive deficits—in terms of vocabulary, content knowledge, and non-cognitive skills. And if they make it to high school graduation 13 years later (and many will not), they will leave, on average, reading and doing math at an 8th-grade level. Of the low-income teens that give higher education a shot, the vast majority of will end up in remedial education and then wash out. More than half of poor children will become poor adults, with poor children of their own. The cycle will repeat. Our hope is that by improving our schools (and, yes, other things too), we can change this narrative.

Let’s imagine that our schools can help the average child born into poverty do somewhat better. Let’s say that with a combination of talented and well-trained teachers, a rich and rigorous curriculum, lots of supports, and strong leadership, we’re able to get poor students, on average, to a 10th-grade level by the time they graduate high school. Suddenly they can attend a community college, or even a four-year university, without starting in remedial education. They are much more likely to graduate, at least with an associate’s degree or a technical credential. Rather than making minimum wage, they will make a living wage.

They are less likely to get pregnant as teens, or end up in prison, or drop out of the workforce. Their children wouldn’t be born poor—they would be born middle class. This would be transformative.

Notice the key assumption built into this “theory of action": reading and math matter a lot. Getting to the 10th-grade level instead of the 8th-grade level (even as measured by rinky-dinky standardized tests) would make a meaningful difference in real lives. With that assumption in place, it’s not crazy—in fact, it’s perfectly rational—to hold schools accountable for helping their students make progress every year with their reading and math skills. It’s smart to put in place clear, high standards—let’s call them common-core standards—that will delineate the path from poverty to prosperity, that will help schools and teachers focus on the knowledge and skills that matter most, and will get students to true readiness for college and career by the age of 18.

So Deborah, are you ready for the big question, the kicker, the heart of the matter?

How sure are we that it’s literacy and numeracy, and related academic knowledge and skills, that are the most important precursors to success in college, career, and life? What if something else is just as important, or even more important, like “non-cognitive skills” or personal relationships? (Or perhaps the habit of “serious intellectual inquiry,” as you put it?)

And what if our “testing obsession” is crowding these other things out?

These are critical questions, but here’s what gives me solace.

First, the evidence is quite strong that reading and math achievement are critical tickets to the middle class. Look, for example, at the blockbuster study from Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff that examined the impact of teachers on students’ long-term outcomes. As Kevin Carey explained at the time,

If you believe standardized tests are worthless or highly flawed or deeply inadequate or even troublingly limited in accuracy and scope-and many reasonable people believe these things-then you could dismiss or downplay value-added measures of teacher effectiveness, by definition. ... But now the CFR study says that teachers who are unusually good at helping students score high on standardized tests today aren't just unusually good at helping students score high on standardized tests tomorrow. They also have an unusual effect on the likelihood of students going to college, going to a good college, earning a good living, living in a nice place, and saving for retirement. In other words, whatever the limitations of standardized tests may be, test-based value-added scores do, in fact, provide valuable information about the things most people care most about.

Or look at the evidence that E.D. Hirsch cites about the impact of teenagers’ vocabulary on their long-term prospects, such as a 1999 study that shows that “a gain of one standard deviation on the Armed Forces Qualification Test raises one’s annual income by nearly $10,000 (in 2012 dollars).”

Or a brand-new study from the United Kingdom (flagged by Joanne Jacobs ) that finds that “math skills at 7 predict earnings at 42.”

Surely reading and math aren’t all that matters. Paul Tough makes a good case for non-cognitive skills. Others, yourself included, point to the importance of strong personal relationships with mentors. We could name more. But reading and math skills are at least necessary, if not sufficient.

On the other hand, there’s little evidence that the “testing obsession” is systematically getting in the way of good teaching and learning in high-poverty schools. That’s not because an obsession with testing isn’t a problem. It surely is, with its temptations of cheating, narrowing of the curriculum, and the culture of fear that it often perpetuates.

But here’s the rub, Deborah: Studies of high-poverty schools in America have demonstrated for decades that great teaching and learning have always been the exception, not the norm. To believe that testing is making these schools worse, you have to believe that they were once pretty good, or at least better than they are now. I just don’t see it. Do you? Where’s the evidence of that?

Furthermore, think back to Kevin Carey’s comments on the Chetty study. If an obsession with reading and math was crowding out more important tasks, why would students with stronger reading and math gains do better long-term than their peers?

Here’s what your readers need to remember: The choice today is not between 100,000 Central Park Easts or Mission Hills and 100,000 test-prep factories. If it were, I’d pick the Deborah Meier schools in a heartbeat. But let’s face it: There aren’t more than a handful of Deborah Meier schools out there. (The same goes with Don Hirsch schools or Mike Feinberg/Dave Levin schools, or any other brand you want to name.)

The typical high-poverty school is, and has always been, pretty mediocre. That’s not an indictment of the people who work in these schools; the problem is the system. And it’s not unique to education. Any big, bureaucratic government agency is going to struggle to achieve effectiveness, much less excellence. (Think the DMV.) Heck, even most large, private-sector companies are pretty lame, especially ones that don’t face much competition. (Think the electric company.) Layer on top of that all of the distracting demands placed upon schools, the fragmented nature of education governance, and, in some places at least, too few resources, and it would be a miracle if the typical high-poverty public school were good, much less great.


So do I think testing and accountability make matters worse? No. In fact, based on the studies cited above, I think they will make matters marginally better. I also think stronger standards and tests (a la common core) will make things better still.

What about you, Deborah? Are you willing to ask “What if I’m wrong?” What if it’s true that reading and math skills are hugely related to opportunities in life, and indeed are malleable? What if “direct instruction,” which you say isn’t needed, really is the most effective method for helping children in poverty develop those skills? What if it’s patently untrue that children learn “vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and spelling ... the same way we learn everything else that matters,” as you stated last week, but instead have to be taught systematically? What if the perfect for which you have spent decades championing really is the enemy of the good—and the greater good, for millions of boys and girls throughout America?

Deborah, with all due respect, I ask you to ask yourself: Am I a part of the cure, or am I part of the disease?


Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank based in Washington, where he writes for the award-winning Flypaper blog. He is also an executive editor of Education Next and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelPetrilli.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.