What it’ll take for schools to use spring’s exams responsibly

What it’ll take for schools to use spring’s exams responsibly
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As the school year approaches its close, tens of millions of students across the land are wrapping up their annual state tests. For all the annoyance and anger these tests engender, we would do well to remember that they exist mostly in response to a sensible expectation that public schools be accountable and that parents know how their children are doing.

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After all, in 2001, when the federal No Child Left Behind law raised the curtain on the “accountability era”, more than 90 percent of parents said that students should have to pass a standardized test to be promoted to the next grade. Nearly two decades later, for all the trouble and turmoil of the NCLB era, nearly 80 percent of the public supports required testing in reading and math. At the same time, many parents think testing has gone too far, with nearly two-thirds saying there is too much of an emphasis on testing.

These mixed feelings are not a sign of confusion; rather, they reflect a sensible awareness of the costs as well as the benefits of testing. Last year, in his valuable book “The Testing Charade,” Harvard University’s Dan Koretz aptly captured this tension, noting that tests provide valuable insight into how students, schools, and states are doing — but that testing has also been distorted by overuse, ill-conceived accountability systems, and a fixation on test preparation.

The answer is neither to abandon testing nor to close our eyes to its problems, but to work harder at ensuring that tests are used responsibly. Here are four insights, all clearer today than they were at the dawn of the NCLB era, which can help us do just that.

  1. Reading and math scores can rise for lots of reasons.

Scores may be up because students are learning more of everything, and the tests are picking that up in reading and math. That’s all good.

Alternatively, students may be learning more reading and math, but at the expense of everything else. In that case, those math and reading scores are deceptive — students aren’t really learning “more”, they’re just spending more time on tested subjects and less on other content. And, of course, it’s possible that scores are up because schools are spending lots of time teaching students to take tests. The lesson is that why scores go up matters as much as whether they do.

  1. Testing can constrict teaching and learning.

If a focus on reading and math tests prompts schools to shift attention away from untested but important topics like history or world languages, it’s important to consciously weigh the benefits and the costs of this shift.

For instance, while the question is rarely examined, one survey of teachers found that two-thirds thought untested disciplines were getting crowded out of the school day. When faced with those kinds of data points, we need to weigh whether we intend for tests to encourage schools to devote more time to reading and math, or whether this is an unintended consequence that deserves to be addressed.  

  1. Reading and math scores capture only a portion of what schools are supposed to do.

Test scores measure something real and important. We shouldn’t shy away from using them. But we also shouldn’t overstate what they tell us. After all, reading and math tests tell us nothing about how students are faring on much that we care deeply about, including qualities like character and citizenship. Unless one truly thinks that reading and math scores capture the lion’s share of what we want students to learn, it’s a mistake to use them as simple-minded proxies for “good” schools or “effective” teaching.

  1. State tests rarely provide meaningful feedback to students and families.

The big state tests that students have been taking for hours this spring won’t produce results until well after the school year is over. In some states, the results won’t be released until well after the next school year is underway. Given that students may be in class for a month or more until the results even show up in the fall, it’s clear that the tests are far more useful for judging schools and teachers than for informing instruction. It’s hard to blame families for being skeptical of lengthy tests, and all the accompanying test preparation, when they know these tests are more about system needs than educating their kids.  

Tests are a useful tool and it’s a mistake to let our concerns run amok or prompt us to make rash decisions full of anti-testing fervor. But, like any tool, testing is only as useful as the skill with which it’s wielded. As testing season draws to a close, parents, educators, and policymakers would do well to keep that in mind.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Letters to a Young Education Reformer.” Brendan Bell is a research assistant at AEI.