Myths of the anti-testing backlash

Test haters have become myth makers, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Jennifer Borgioli on Gadfly.

The idea is that teachers know best and that standardized testing—or any kind of testing, really, other than the teacher-built kind—is a distracting nuisance that saps valuable instructional time, deflects instructors from what’s most essential, and yields very little useful information about student learning.

. . . research has consistently demonstrated that, absent independent checks, many teachers hold low-income and minority students to different standards than their affluent, white peers.

. . . Standardized tests not only help us unearth these biases but also put the spotlight on achievement gaps that need to be closed, students who need extra help, schools that are struggling, and on. And by doing so, they drive critical conversations about the curriculum, pedagogy, and state and district policies that we need to catch kids up and get them back on the path to success.

Testing also is blamed for “drill-and-kill” instruction that existed long before the testing-and-accountability era, they write.

All else being equal, the students who typically fare better on state tests are those whose teachers focus not on empty test-taking tricks but rather on content-rich and intellectually engaging curriculum.

Ironically, an anti-testing position paper by the Chicago Teachers Union showed test-prepping teachers’ students scored lower on the ACT than students who were given “intellectually demanding work.”

Standardized tests don’t measure “what really matters” in education, such as critical thinking or social and emotional skills, critics complain. No test can measure everything, concede Porter-Magee and Borgioli. But many skills can be evaluated.

Anti-testers argue that setting standards and aligning assessments to them doesn’t work because it’s not what the Finns do.

Our own history suggests that it is exactly the states that have set rigorous standards connected to strong accountability regimes—most notably, Massachusetts—that have seen the greatest gains for all students, not just our most disadvantaged.

Meaningful reform will “require the effective measurement of student achievement that tests make possible,” they conclude.

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  1. Standardized tests don’t measure “what really matters” in education, such as critical thinking or social and emotional skills, critics complain

    And there I thought that the State compelled education and took my money to pay for it to teach kids to read and do math and the like.

    Oddly, those things are easily tested.

    (For that matter, it’s not too hard to test for at least the bare existence of critical thinking skills, not that – contrary to the idea that it’s “what’s really important” – the schools have ever been good at teaching that.

    I mean, teach the little savages to think critically and the next thing you know, they’re ripping apart the illogical and arbitrary parts of your lesson plan.)

  2. Mike in Texas says:

    We still have not received the scores for last year’s students (as in the 2011-2012). I don’t know how I’m going to use their scores to improve instruction when I do actually get them.

  3. Having different expectations about the average performance of different ethnic and racial groups is simply a recognition of reality. If a math teacher for example were to be teaching two math classes, one made up of East Asians and the other made up of African-Americans, and such a teacher genuinely expected equal average performance from both classes then such a teacher would be seriously dissociated from reality.

  4. lightly seasoned says:

    In moderation, testing is fine. It’s just expanded into this monster. My freshmen are taking 5 state tests this year. That’s absurd. And the more time devoted to testing, the less I can devote to teaching content. A few days is not a big deal, but when you stretch into full weeks of it, that’s a whole unit lost. One less novel. If you’re a Core Knowledge adherent, that’s a lot of background information — what do I ditch? Lord of the Flies? Romeo & Juliet? To Kill a Mockingbird?

  5. Most of the “myths” are straw men. Testing has taken over the public school. Public schools have changed markedly over the years my children have attended school. In our district, they have not changed for the better. They offered “content-rich and engaging curriculum” before the advent of testing. I know this because they did score at the top of the state the first time the tests were administered.

    Certainly, standardized tests can be useful, if used wisely. What we see now in the public schools is not wise. What is not tested will not be taught. Far too much class time is devoted to preparing for standardized tests. Far too much class time is devoted to taking standardized tests.

    Many large districts have already been caught cheating on a grand scale on the tests. If you think you can rely upon the results of such tests, when the livelihood of those who administer the tests rests upon the results, well…

    It is neither necessary nor efficient to test every child every year. If the intent of the tests is to monitor school quality, tests administered by independent testers without advanced warning to students chosen randomly by computer should be implemented.

    Rather than demonize those who point out flaws in the testing empire, it would be more productive for those who favor testing to define limits to testing. Do they feel there is a limit to the time a school should devote to administering tests? After all, the ACT/SAT tests demand only a weekend morning. The amount of class time devoted only to testing (and of course, the practice tests teachers administer to students), is time which must be subtracted from class time available for instruction. Thus, the testing empire represents a net loss in time available for instruction. Does this not bother those who are pro-testing?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I hated to give my own tests for precisely the reason you mention, “The amount of class time devoted only to testing … is time which must be subtracted from class time available for instruction.” However, I felt I had to; otherwise they would not take advantage of all that instruction. That led to the next problem: trying to design tests that assessed understanding, not just knowledge that would fade in a few weeks. I’m not sure I succeeded. I’m not sure any of us succeed.

    • >> Certainly, standardized tests can be
      >> useful, if used wisely. What we see now
      >> in the public schools is not wise.

      But nearly all of the criticism of standardized testing is nowhere as reasonable as what you just wrote.

      Some time ago some teacher posted a message stating that while she had been a rabid anti-ST stalwart she came to realize that preparing for ST helped her realize that there were gaps in her teaching and she addressed them making her a better teacher. Useful? Apparently not to the many teachers who attacked her in the comments section. (Sorry, but I can’t remember where I had read this)

      Many teachers out there insist that all standardization of any kind is wrong. I’ve even had an ST critic insist that there is no standardization in engineering because it would prevent engineers from being “creative”, so she prepared her science students for world that exists only in her imagination.

      Look at the crazy stuff that Marion Brady and the folks at Fairtest post on the Answer sheet on a regular basis and look at all the positive feedback they receive from self-identified teachers.

      Reasonable criticism of ST gets completely drowned out by the much louder lunacy.

      >> Rather than demonize those who point out
      >> flaws in the testing empire, it would be
      >> more productive for those who favor
      >> testing to define limits to testing

      I think the loonies and their allies should be the ones who should stop demonizing all standardization. THEN, we’d some some positive results

      • Each side accuses the other of lunacy. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

        I understand researchers specializing in education find yearly tests of every child very useful. Children are not widgets, though, so testing’s efficacy is limited.

        We’ve left the public system. As it is, my eldest has taken: ISEE, SSAT, ACT, SAT I, SAT II, National Language Exams, PSAT. I rather think that’s enough.

        Now, the load is lighter for her, because we don’t do test prep. She scores at the highest levels without it. I gather that many, many students devote a great deal of time to prepping for standardized tests–or at least, they show up for test prep classes or sit by their tutors for the required sessions. All that time could be put to better use.

        I am concerned that all this testing leaves little space in the students’ lives for sustained immersion in one topic in depth. How many teachers assign serious research papers these days? Writing about the Boxer Rebellion won’t help you on the standardized tests. It’s too deep. The student would need to read multiple books and articles on the topic, which may not be reflected by a single question on the Common Core Assessment tests, the essay would be longer than 5 paragraphs, and to do a good job, the student should take a viewpoint which might be debatable.

  6. Is it unreasonable for kids to be tested at the beginning of the school year, for placement (hopefully for homogeneous grouping by subject), and at the end, for progress? I’ve certainly known private schools who do that, and they look closely at progress during the year – and the higher-level kids are expected to make significantly more progress than the average ones (for the school). Some of the schools that cater to the top students expect at least 1 1/2 year’s progress of all kids and even more for their top kids. The Headmaster of one of them told me that specifically, and said that it was one of the main reasons those kids were being sent to him; the public schools were not challenging these kids enough, even though they were zoned for “top” schools in the affluent, leafy suburbs. Their kids were so far ahead that new students almost always had to repeat a grade (and they didn’t accept new kids past freshman year) – and that was also true of the big-name NE boarding schools my cousin’s kids attended.

    • All the big New England boarding schools accept students past freshman year. That’s why students are described as “four year senior,” “two year senior,” etc.

      Students may repeat a grade upon entrance, but that has more to do with maturity and a competitive advantage in sports.

      The applicants have taken the SSAT (schools will accept the ISEE). Placement tests are used for the first year. Thereafter, placement depends upon the student’s grades in the previous year’s course.

      • Sorry, I wasn’t clear – I meant some of the local (DC) schools may not accept kids after freshman year – at least while we were there.

        • Thank you for clarifying. I wouldn’t be a fan of fall and spring testing in a private school. Parents and administrators should be able to judge a student’s progress by reading the final exam or final paper. Advisors should know how their advisees are faring in other courses. There is also the trap of setting the bar too high, as it seems some of the New York prep schools may do, if the NYT stories of families hiring tutors to get them through set projects or school itself are true. When I hear people asserting, “No one gets through private school without tutors,” I think 1) eh, not true, and 2) are the schools setting their standards at a realistic level for smart teenagers (i.e., not for tutors with graduate degrees)? If it works for that school, though, fine. One man’s meat, etc.

          The beauty of the NE boarding schools is that students are challenged. The students are also kept busy with other things, such as required sports, so that they must use their time wisely to get everything done. The very bright need to learn to work; too many can coast through many schools with little cognitive effort. I do worry that national standardized achievement testing sets the bar too low to challenge the top third.

          • I agree, for kids already in the school, that beginning of year testing shouldn’t be necessary in private schools – and possibly not for public schools. In the latter case, a lot would depend on the stability of the school population. New kids with no prior test results would need to be tested IF placements were homogeneous.

            I second your last sentence. There seems to be no interest in challenging the top – it might widen the dreaded achievement gap. There’s a whine in the WaPo almost monthly about the evils of gifted programs of any sort – too elitist, not sufficiently diverse etc.

  7. “Ironically, an anti-testing position paper by the Chicago Teachers Union showed test-prepping teachers’ students scored lower on the ACT than students who were given ‘intellectually demanding work.'”

    This confirms my own experience from elementary school through college: the best way to learn facts is to learn how they fit together in an understanding of the subject, and the best way to pass a final exam is to learn the subject throughout the year. But apparently this went right over the heads of many students who became teachers. It makes me suspect that the lower half or more of education majors never really understood most subjects.