It’s easy to understand why. In what future generations will cite as a textbook case of Campbell’s Law, standardized test scores have been treated as the goal of education itself, rather than one among many ways of gauging our progress. Because of this distortion, educators’ behavior has been focused on raising test scores by any means necessary rather than on improving the substantive educational experiences of students in legitimate, honest ways.
In the 3rd season of HBO’s gritty drama The Wire, the mayor of Baltimore tells the police commissioner to keep the total number of murders under 275 for the year. The commissioner, in turn, tells the district commanders that their crime stats need to start trending downward, and fast. Bewildered at the facile and strategy-neutral (“by any means necessary”) nature of this demand, the officers start reclassifying violent crimes as nonviolent, and downgrading felonies to misdemeanors. Perhaps that knife was really a comb - it was dark, after all. Perhaps your car wasn’t stolen; maybe you let someone borrow it.
The effect of this type of policing, of course, is to undermine the quality of life of the city’s citizens. No one is served by pretending things are better than they are—except those whose career prospects depend on delivering the right stats.
Given this situation, what should the Baltimore Police Department have done? If we’re to believe the critics of standardized testing, the analogous answer would be to eliminate police statistics altogether. But is that the right solution, or does the answer lie in the way those hard numbers are used for accountability?
What would happen if we eliminated standardized testing?
First, we’d validate all of the critics of public education who say that money spent on schools is poorly spent. If we’re not willing to accept responsibility for results, they say, why should we be entrusted with public funds? Businesses can’t get away with delivering no meaningful results, so why should schools be provided with tax dollars if they’re not accountable for delivering results?
But wait, you might say - we’ve had public schools for hundreds of years, and never have we had such testing mania. The problem is that the tests now exist, so we know that we can measure student learning with some degree of accuracy. The public will not forget that we have this capacity and let us off the hook for showing results. Like it or not, from this point on, we’re not going to get funding if we perennially fail to show results.
Second, we’d lose the ability to learn from differences in performance. In other words, we’d reinforce the pernicious myth that all educational practices are equally valid and useful, and we’d miss out on the opportunity for our lower-performing schools, principals, and teachers to learn from those who are doing a better job.
What really needs to be changed, to prevent this from happening again? We need to restructure accountability, and make it more local. If your bosses don’t know and don’t care what strategies you’re using to improve student learning, that’s the place to start.
We are certainly over-testing in some areas, and scaling this back to a more reasonable level wouldn’t hurt. But we need to keep on testing students—maybe not so much, and maybe not for the same purposes, but standardized tests are here to stay, and to a point, this is a good thing.
First, we need standardized tests to provide basic information about how our schools are performing relative to each other. In the current environment of testing- and accountability-mania, it’s easy to forget that this is actually very useful information for improvement purposes. The fact that we have used this information for other purposes, centering on punitive accountability measures, has taken our eyes off of this benefit to standardized testing. There are dozens of non-punitive ways to use this information, such as resource allocation, professional development planning, and identifying school goals for improvement.
Second, we need standardized testing to identify inequities and achievement gaps. When we have no solid way to measure learning outcomes, it’s easy for inequities to hide behind our good intentions and best efforts. But that’s not good enough. We owe it to our students to pay attention to how they’re doing, and to change what we’re doing when it’s not working.
I hope we can reel in some of the more destructive aspects of accountability in the wake of the recent cheating scandals, but I hope we don’t throw out the baby with its dirty bath water.
The opinions expressed in On Performance 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.