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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Assessment Opinion

Searching for Common Ground: What Makes a Good Test?

By Rick Hess — February 08, 2022 5 min read
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Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I earlier this year launched a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in education. I thought readers might enjoy perusing snippets of those conversations every now and then. Today, Pedro and I discuss standardized testing—what it’s for, where it’s gone wrong, and how to improve it.


Pedro: Take an issue like high-stakes testing: This has been one of those issues that has divided us in education for many years. There’s going to be a lot of tension over testing right now, because many are concerned that as students return to school after the pandemic, there will be pressure to test kids to measure “learning loss.” Both of us agree that there’s a need for assessment and that assessments are critical tools for education—but how and even when assessment’s done also matters.

Rick: Yep, that’s really well said. The expectation, as you know, is that you’re either “for” testing or you’re against it. I honestly don’t get this mindset. Every teacher, whatever they think of testing, does assessment every day. They’re asking kids questions, they’re gauging whether a student understands things, they’re giving written exercises or using quizzes to determine what students have or haven’t learned. Big, formal state tests are just a different version of this and can be really helpful. They can give parents, taxpayers, and educators insight into what kids know. Of course, they can also be a burdensome distortion. They’re the latter when they prompt schools to narrowly focus on test prep or lead us to ignore important skills that aren’t being tested. But it’s less that the tests are innately good or bad, I think, than what we’re doing with them. And I think we agree on this, that testing is a tool, it’s a hammer, and the problem is when it’s getting swung recklessly by policymakers or school leaders.

Pedro: Exactly. What’s happened over the last several years is that tests have driven everything, from what kids learn in the curriculum to what teachers cover. The narrowing of the focus of education has really caused so much of the pushback that we’ve seen across the country from parents who have chosen to “opt out.” It’s interesting that a lot of affluent parents have objected to their kids being judged based on how they perform on standardized tests, especially when they know that their kids were not adequately prepared for those tests. This occurred in states like New York when students were being tested on the Common Core even before it was taught in school. I think a lot of the pushback is very reasonable. You know, I have visited so many school districts where they can tell you if a kid scored low, medium, or high, but they don’t know what to do about the scores. If the tests are reliable, we should be asking: How do we take a kid who’s performing below grade level and move them forward? The fact that many districts don’t know how to do that shows us that we have put the emphasis on the wrong thing. We have used assessment to rank kids rather to identify their needs and address them. If we only look at test scores but then don’t develop robust interventions to support kids, what have we accomplished? I keep pointing this out as important because many policymakers really don’t seem to get it.

Rick: I think that’s right. When we talk about education reform, there tends to be this fascination with big things. There’s a certain sense that testing can help us “fix” things, that it can tell us which schools and teachers are good, which are bad, and what to do about it. That’s a pretty appealing promise. It’s a false promise, I think, but you get its attraction for elected officials and superintendents. But all of that can wind up feeling really removed from parents. In recent years, we saw parents saying, “Your rating system said my kid’s teacher is ineffective, but I think the teacher is doing a really good job with my kid. My kid is learning stuff, likes going to school, and is interested.” And reformers were effectively saying to that parent, “Well, you’re wrong. We’re going to show you the teacher who seems to be doing good with your kid is actually bad because their value-added reading score isn’t moving.” We wound up with these conversations which are about things that adults can measure, whether or not they’re things that actually matter for kids and families.

Pedro: I’ve seen so much damage done here: teachers, principals, and schools judged by test scores, and the only response is to apply pressure and threats. I’ve never seen a school improve because of pressure and threats. I want to be clear that it is important to look for evidence of learning, but test scores don’t necessarily provide that. To really understand how to help kids, you need to know why they may be struggling in a particular area. You need much more evidence than a standardized test can typically provide. Most private schools don’t rely exclusively on standardized tests to make judgments about kids. They look at a broad array of evidence; they want to know, “Can the kid really write? Can they read, compute, and problem solve? What does their work show?” You need this to understand the causes of learning problems. I think that kind of information is what most parents want. They want really meaningful information about the learning that their kids are experiencing, and I think that’s what most teachers want, too.

Rick: The perpetual challenge is that the well-meaning proposals that policymakers or advocates embrace have to play out in the real world, and they often play out very differently than intended. We saw this with Common Core, with teacher evaluation, with No Child Left Behind. When the debate is dominated by the 10 percent on each side who are writing angry tweets and giving speeches, the 60, 70, 80 percent of folks in the middle, who are like, “Look, actually it’s complicated, I want to think this through, I want to know what this means in practice,” wind up just hunkering down or getting drowned out.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 1 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “Introducing the Common Ground Podcast.

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