Date: Oct 2, 2013 7:05 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: [ncsm-members] Test Obsession is Killing Education
From the Education Opportunity Network. See
Test Obsession is Killing Education
Scores on the SAT - "the nation's most widely
used" college entrance exam - made news headlines
recently, and the averages are either a "call to
action," a sign of progress, or "meaningless."
] [See CALL TO ACTION --
; SIGN OF PROGRESS --
; MEANINGLESS --
Confused? You should be. Because reports of
testing data, whether they're the SAT, the ACT,
the NAEP, or some other alphabet car wreck,
rarely reveal the grand aha moment claimed and
are more so indicators of just how far off base
the nation has gone in understanding what matters
most for school children.
National Debate Is Out Of Whack
At every corner and level, the national debate
about education policy is dangerously mired in
squabbling about what "the data" reveal about the
quality of American schooling, while in the
meantime, teachers go begging for the very
pencils students need to fill out the
Recent example: For some time now, the mediocre
scores of American students taking
internationally benchmarked tests have been posed
as a "crisis." The data prove our schools are
"failing," we're told. And based on "the data,"
whole campaigns from major corporations and
political candidates exhort us to "solve this"
horrific problem endangering the nation. [CRISIS
; FAILING --
; SOLVE THIS --
Now comes along a new book pricking a needle into
this big, fat balloon of opprobrium. Public
schools are not failing, the author, education
historian Diane Ravitch, contends. And she bases
her argument on, well, the data. [NEW BOOK --
In a review from a local Florida newspaper, an
impartial voice concurs, citing Ravitch's
recitation of data showing "notable improvements"
on international tests, a narrowing of the
test-score gap between African-American students
and white students, and scores on the test known
as The Nation's Report Card. [ FLORIDA NEWSPAPER
What to believe: Critics of public schools are
right that America should be number one in the
world? Or defenders of public schools are right
that public schools are doing unbelievably well
given the difficult circumstances heaped upon
them? GIVEN THE DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES --
Or how about this: That maybe the vaunted data
continuously extracted from massive databanks of
test scores really don't support conclusions
drawn from them.
Back to those SAT test results . . .
What's Wrong With The SAT
"The real question isn't about why the scores
went up or down," as Valerie Strauss puts it from
the link provided above, "but whether or not the
results tell us anything valuable about a
student's achievement and abilities. They don't."
Strauss bases her conclusion on evidence drawn
from a place where far to few observers of
testing data dare to go - what's actually on the
Citing a New York Times interview with David
Coleman, the president of the organization that
owns the SAT, Strauss notes that makers of the
test want it "substantially rewritten" due to its
emphasis on testing for vocabulary that is "too
esoteric for everyday use," an essay section that
"doesn't value accuracy," and a math section that
isn't "focused enough on concepts that matter."
[NEW YORK TIMES --
Problems With Tests Are Commonplace
Problems with the actual content of tests aren't
confined to the SATs. State tests used for all
sorts of make-or-break decisions about students,
teachers, and schools are also fraught with
In fact, a new, in-depth series of reports from
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution looks at what's
actually on state tests across the nation and
concludes, "Mistakes have become near commonplace
despite the tests' high stakes." [ATLANTA
The reporters examined thousands of testing
documents from across the country and found,
"While lawmakers pumped up the repercussions of
lagging scores, schools opened exam booklets to
find whole pages missing. Answer-sheet scanners
malfunctioned. Kids puzzled over nonsensical
questions. Results were miscalculated, again and
Their findings, likely the tip of an iceberg of
bungled testing practices, include questions with
"no right answer option, or more than one right
answer," wording that was unclear or misleading,
test questions on "material never taught," and
items that "bordered on bizarre."
To be fair to the testing companies themselves,
the reporters note that "education officials
failed to address why the tests were derailing or
how government contributed to breakdowns," while
an "unprecedented volume of test-takers" and
demanding timelines for scores "left testing
contractors without enough time to figure out why
something didn't look right."
The AJC reporters trace the problem to federal
policies that "ramped up testing programs in 2006
to satisfy No Child Left Behind mandates."
The Thousand Dollar Question
Despite the mounting evidence that testing does
not revel the truth we think it does, the
juggernaut nevertheless continues to roll on, as
states spend billions more on ever-more expensive
yet generally unproven new tests.
The impact that test data obsession has on
day-to-day practices in schools cannot be
[IMPACT THAT TEST DATA ... --
Decisions to pass or fail students, rate teacher
"ineffective" or "effective," even keep schools
open or close them down are now being made to an
ever-increasing extent based on scores.
Educators who now create school "reward programs"
in a never-ending Skinnerian process to improve
scores really believe they are "incentivizing
learning." As at least one teacher involved in
these kinds of schemes recently enthused, "It is
easy to teach them when they know they have these
nice rewards." [ REWARD PROGRAMS --
In the meantime, skeptics like Strauss pose the
$1,000 question more people need to ask: "Why
use test scores for high-stakes purposes when the
scores have very little, if any, meaning?"
Start With Saying "Stop"
Does this call for abandoning testing altogether? Of course not.
In a recent dialogue published in Education Week,
two authorities on education testing point to a
potential way out of this mess.
One expert, Bob Linn, warns, "Raising the stakes
for our test-based accountability systems so that
there will be consequences for individual
teachers will make matters even worse. Cheating
scandals will blossom. I think this annual
testing is unnecessary and is a big part of the
problem. What we should be doing is testing at
two key points along the way in grades K-8, and
then in high school using end-of-course tests."
Another, Howard Everson, bemoans, "The
multiple-choice paradigm first used in WWI and
eventually used to satisfy the NCLB requirements
has proven to be quite brittle, especially when
applied in every grade 3-8 and used to make
growth assumptions. The quick and widespread
adoption of multiple-choice testing was in
hindsight a big mistake for this country, but -
now - states will tell you it is all they can
No one, however, in a leadership position seems to be taking this advice.
In the meantime, accountability-crazed
"reformers" believing that policy can focus
solely on these numeric "outcomes" are taking the
nation's schools - and the children inside them -
over a cliff.
As the country continues to veer toward the
precipice, the first order of business is to
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244