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." [SAT --
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/09/26/high-school-sat-scores-flat-for-college/2873633/ ] [See CALL TO ACTION --
http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2013/0926/Flatlining-SAT-scores-are-a-call-to-action-for-educators ; SIGN OF PROGRESS
http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/sat-scores-hit-eight-year-high-in-va-dc-also-sees-gains/2013/09/25/fab9ef96-2565-11e3-b75d-5b7f66349852_story_1.html ; 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 --
http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/april/rice-declining-schools-040513.html ; FAILING --
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/06/the-failure-of-american-schools/308497/ ; 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
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
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 flawed
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
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
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 overstated.
[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 Š 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
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
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
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
As the country continues to veer toward the precipice, the first order
of business is to shout, "Stop."
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