A tested nation

Tests are essential to diagnose problems and hold public schools accountable to the public, write Bill Evers and Herbert Walberg in the Christian Science Monitor.

In the effort to hold schools accountable, tests constitute a critical tool that can help identify children with learning disabilities, judge the efficacy of chosen curricula, and suggest the degree to which educational products, programs, and practices are working. That information arms state and local school boards with the knowledge they need to make choices. In terms of accountability, tests provide the data so decisionmakers can do the rest.

Furthermore, testing is part of our culture.

America is a nation of people who’ve had their report cards taped to the refrigerator door, who have sat through spelling tests, college final exams, and professional licensing tests, and who receive performance reviews at work.

We’re not convinced that our schools should be the one American institution exempt from getting its own grade, with penalties in cases of failure.

Standardized testing is beating out portfolios as a way to assess students’ performance, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. The trend predates No Child Left Behind, though it’s been accelerated by the push for accountability linked to test scores.

Vermont and Kentucky investigated the possibility of using portfolio assessments instead of standardized tests to judge school, district and state progress in educational achievement.

But in 1994 RAND corporation researcher Daniel Koretz, now at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, released a report on portfolio assessment in Vermont that many experts say marked the beginning of the decline of that form of grading students. Koretz said Vermont’s assessment of student work suffered because one school might require one kind of project, and another school quite a different one. It was difficult to compare their work. Teachers, the Koretz report said, also complained that portfolios were cutting into valuable teaching time. Math teachers, he said, “frequently noted that portfolio activities take time away from basic skills and computation, which still needs attention.”

Portfolios allow in-depth assessment of individual students, but they’re time-consuming, expensive and subjective, compared to standardized tests.

I once served as a “community” evaluator for a middle school that was doing its own assessment process. I was supposed to evaluate oral presentations by students. I found I was giving creativity points to students for an exercise in which all the creativity had come from the teacher. Since I’d done that for the first ones I’d graded, I couldn’t stop doing it for the later ones. In fact, because of the design of the exercise, it was almost impossible to figure out what each student had done as an individual. When I switched to older students, I couldn’t figure out the reasonable expectations for their age group. I hope my grades didn’t count for much.

About Joanne


  1. Mad Scientist says:

    I am waiting for the day when some people claim that high-stakes testing is so bad that those who aspire to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and yes, teachers should not have to be subjected to it. All high-stakes testing verifies is someone is minimally competent to practice that which he has supposedly learned. Just ask any professional licensing board.

    If we decide that determining whether or not someone has a minimum competency in high school level Math, English, and Social Studies is too much to ask for in return for our legal extortion of school tax dollars, then we should just abolish the schools.

    That which gets measured gets done. If we devise a test to fairly measure how well kids learn and find they did not learn well, what specifically does that say about the teachers who are theoretically minimally competent?

  2. While standardized testing is great for almost anything, IT DOES NOT TEST WRITING SKILLS!!! I had a couple of students in my classes that earned 26 (an excellent score) on the ACT (more common in rural areas), and had to revise every paper. There are places for portfolio exams. The assessment of writing skills is one of those places.

  3. John Doe says:

    Standardized tests can be made to test just about anything you want to test. Computers are getting good enough to test essay question answers too. This is good news because it means we are finally breaking out of the ‘productivity paradox’ whereby teachers are no more productive today than 100 years ago. We are reaching a point where everyone will be able to go to college cheaply, thanks to automation.

  4. “Computers are getting good enough to test essay question answers too.”

    No, they’re not. Your turn.

  5. re: Go to college cheaply. OK, tell me why we need more students going to college when we have high-paying trades jobs going begging and an overabundance of college grads without jobs. Even more scary is that these kids are graduating with huge debt and little future. Let’s stop this madness. We need to stop thinking of college as a ticket to a well-paying job. It’s simply not. Investigate the statistics. If you take doctors and lawyers out of the wage calculations for college grads — the average is much closer to the wages earned for high school grads.

  6. Amen, Gwen!!

  7. Given the howling I see about the PRAXIS, I’d say we’re already at the day when people insist that teachers should not have to demonstrate minimum competency. Then again, schools of education are notorious for instilling anti-testing beliefs; is it any wonder that so many would-be teachers fear the exams?

    As for doctors, lawyers, etc…I don’t think anyone is yet crazy enough to insist that, say, doctors shouldn’t have to demonstrate basic skills in the clinical sciences. But give the crazies time.

  8. I’m a teacher and I don’t fear competency tests at all. What does concern me is so many of these reforms seemed to be aimed at making it easier to get rid of teachers. The laws in place are designed to protect teachers from retribution from the administration, especially for speaking their minds when it comes to what’s best for kids. Many of these new laws seem to want to strip teachers of these protections.

    I have taken competetency exams in the past, have demonstrated for 10 years I am competent, I will qualify to be considered a Master Teacher according to the proposed federal regulations, so why should I have to prove myself again to some educrat who hasn’t been in the classroom for 20 years?

  9. Mad Scientist says:

    For the same reason that I, as a PE with a Ph.D., must take continuing education courses to maintain my PE license.

  10. Steve LaBonne says:

    And that I, as a forensic DNA analyst / Technical Leader with a Ph.D and professional certification as a Fellow of the American Board of Criminalistics, must correctly analyze proficiency-test samples twice a year in order to continue doing casework.

  11. Andy Freeman says:

    > What does concern me is so many of these reforms seemed to be aimed at making it easier to get rid of teachers.

    Why should it be hard to get rid of teachers? (Yes, I think that it should be easy to get rid of teachers, superintendents, etc. I’ll note that difficulty in one area does not justify difficulty in another.)

    It would be nice if the answer is relevant in our world, where there are a large number of failing schools.

  12. Mike in Texas says:

    Mad Scientist and Steve,

    I welcome the opportunity to learn and learn from others. My school district can send me to all the continuing education it wants to. I am also evaluated yearly by my admistrator.

    I’m guessing when you take your compentencies it is administered by recognized professionals in your field. Would you agree to guidelines and evaluations created by a group of politicians (lawyers for the most part) who have no idea of what your job entails? Would you let the politicians determine during a legislative session what rules, procedures and results you must have to be a competent forensic DNA analyst?

    I don’t think you would.

    I don’t know a thing about forensic DNA analysis so why should I be allowed to determine the rules and procedures and dictate the results? I wouldn’t dream of even attempting it but there are scores of people who are not professional educators who think they can reform the schools.

    Schools in the US will never improve until the politicians stay out of it. Know who has made millions if not billions of dollars off of high stakes testing in Texas? Ross Perot. Know who was behind the orginal push for high stakes testing in Texas? Ross Perot. There is an article in today’s Houston Chronicle about how he hired upwards of 30 lobbyists to get high stakes testing passed under the guise of reforming Texas schools. Do you think he had the interests of Texas children in mind when he did this? Would you be willing to let Ross Perot determine the educational practices used to educate YOUR children?

  13. Mad Scientist says:

    Mike, here is the typical process for getting a PE license in New York.

    Within 6 months of graduation from an ABET (Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology) accredited engineering program, you are allowed to take the first part of the licensing exam. To sit for it, you have to apply to the state Engineering Board (part of the NYS Department of Education) that must pass on the worthiness of your degree. This first exam is an 8-hour test developed by the NCEES (National Council of Engineering Examination Services) and is offered only twice per year. You must score at least 70 to pass. Many who try (something close to 30%) do not succeed the first time; even fewer make it on subsequent tries.

    You then need to amass 4 years of “acceptable professional experience” before you can apply to the state Board to sit for the PE exam. This 4 years is not simply 4 calander years; it is a total 4 years of documented project work that has a significant engineering component. My 10 years in R&D counted very little. You need to have this certified by a supervisor or co-worker who is familiar with your work and can attest (under penalty of law) that yes, indeed, you did what you claim. This task is mad more challenging in that two of my previous employers no longer exist and the employees have scattered to the far corners of the earth.

    If the Board votes that your experience is not up to standard, you have to submit more documentation. This may delay the process by 6 months or more. If they deem you worthy, then you get to pay an examination fee of $170 (this is in addition to the original $355 application fee) to sit for another 8-hour exam administered by NCEES. Again, the passing score is 70. To give you an idea of how hard the test is, the Structural Engineering I exam (all exams are discipline specific) had a passing rate of 45% for first time takers (repeat takers had a pass rate of 8%.

    If you have prepared well, you then have the honor of being sued for everything you are worth if your work is sub-par.

    Oh, and by the way, at least in NYS the licensing Boards are required to have current licensed individuals as their members (I believe this includes teachers).

    Now, it don’t take no rocket scientist to realize that learning kids about condom use ain’t gonna help them do their times tables. I certainly do not hear of teachers pushing for professional competency evaluations from a state board made up of teaching professionals. Perhaps if they did, then you would not need non-teachers devising the standards.

    It’s called self-regulation.

  14. Mike in Texas says:

    Perhaps you are right in that respect Mad Scientist but I can tell you I’m not afraid of legitimate evaluations by other professionals in my field. However, my last evaluation was by an administrator with a grand total of 2 years teaching experience before moving into administration.

    As far teaching as a profession it can be a brutal Darwinian process where the weak and untalented usually quit on their own within 5 years of beginning, something on the order of 50% of teachers so its not exactly a walk in the park for us.

    But you never answered my question. Would YOU stand for politicians creating the standards for your profession?

  15. Andy Freeman says:

    > But you never answered my question. Would YOU stand for politicians creating the standards for your profession?

    If you’re going to feed at the public trough….

    Note that said politicians are heavily influenced by, wait for it, the NEA. (How many school boards don’t have a majority of NEA supported members?)

    Note also that teacher performance doesn’t approach that of real professionals.

    Of course, teachers aren’t professionals, they’re just paid. Even burger-flippers have more skin in the game.

  16. Mad Scientist says:

    Politicians do set the standards for practice in every licensed profession in NYS. It is all there in Black and White as part of the NYS Education Law.