From the NYTimes Editorial Board:
Congress made a sensible decision a decade ago when it required the states to administer yearly tests to public school students in exchange for federal education aid. The theory behind the No Child Left Behind Act was that holding schools accountable for test scores would force them to improve instruction for groups of children whom they had historically shortchanged.
Testing did spur some progress in student performance. But it has become clear to us over time that testing was being overemphasized — and misused — in schools that were substituting test preparation for instruction. Even though test-driven reforms were helpful in the beginning, it is now clear that they will never bring this country’s schools up to par with those of the high-performing nations that have left us far behind in math, science and even literacy instruction.
Congress required the states to give annual math and reading tests in grades three through eight (and once in high school) as a way of ensuring that students were making progress and that minority children were being fairly educated. Schools that did not meet performance targets for two years were labeled as needing improvement and subjected to sanctions. Fearing that they would be labeled poor performers, schools and districts — especially in low-income areas — rolled out a relentless series of “diagnostic” tests that were actually practice rounds for the high-stakes exams to come.
That the real tests were weak, and did not gauge the skills students needed to succeed, made matters worse. Unfortunately, most states did not invest in rigorous, high-quality exams with open-ended essay questions that test reasoning skill. Rather, they opted for cheap, multiple-choice tests of marginal value. While practically making exams the center of the educational mission, the country underinvested in curriculum development and teacher training, overlooking the approaches that other nations use to help teachers get constantly better.
The government went further in the testing direction through its competitive grant program, known as Race to the Top, and a waiver program related to No Child Left Behind, both of which pushed the states to create teacher evaluation systems that take student test data into account. Test scores should figure in evaluations, but the measures have to be fair, properly calibrated and statistically valid — all of which means that these evaluation systems cannot be rushed into service before they are ready.
Foreign nations with the highest-performing school systems did not build them this way. In fact, none of the top-performing nations have opted for a regime of grade-by-grade standardized tests. Instead, they typically have gateway exams that determine, for example, if high school students have met their standards. These countries typically have strong, national curriculums. Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.
In Finland, for example, teacher preparation programs are highly competitive and extremely challenging. (The programs are free to students and come with a living stipend.) Close attention is devoted not just to scholarly and research matters but to pedagogical skills.
This country, by contrast, has an abysmal system of teacher preparation. That point was underscored recently in a harrowing report on teacher education programs from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and advocacy group. The report found that very few programs meet even basic quality standards: new students are often poorly prepared, and what the schools teach them “often has little relevance to what they need to succeed in the classroom.”
Some problems could be partly solved by the Common Core learning standards, an ambitious set of goals for what students should learn. The Common Core, adopted by all but a handful of states, could move the nation away from rote memorization — and those cheap, color-in-the-bubble tests — and toward a writing-intensive system that gives students the reasoning skills they need in the new economy. But the concept has become the subject of a backlash from test-weary parents who have little confidence in a whole new round of exams that the system will require. Beyond that, teachers are understandably worried that they will be evaluated — and pushed out of jobs — based on how their students perform on tests related to the old curriculum while they are being asked to teach the new one. If school officials fail to resolve these issues in a fair manner, the national effort to install the new standards could collapse.
Congress could ease some of the test mania by rethinking the way schools are evaluated under No Child Left Behind. Test scores are important to that process, but modest weight should be given to a few other indicators, like advanced courses, promotion rates, college-going rates and so on. Similarly, the states that have allowed the districts to choke schools with the diagnostic tests and data collection could reverse that trend so that schools have perhaps one or two higher-quality tests per year. In other words, the country needs to reconsider its obsession with testing, which can make education worse, not better.