If you believe school reform is urgent (and you should), then you should be in an absolute lather over the quality of our standardized tests. Here's why:
The tests are allowing us to stay in a state of permanent emergency response. Despite all our talk of high expectations, we've geared the system to minimum expectations for many of our students. Lousy tests have become de facto standards in too many places. As the pressures to make Adequate Yearly Progress build so will the pressure to narrow schools' vision. With many of the tests we have, it will be hard to tell the difference between the schools that stay in triage and those that lift their students to world-class standards. So much for transparency.
The tests are becoming the measure of everything, not just schools or Students. Every reform, every innovation, every old or new practice seems to rise or fall on the results of state tests. We make sweeping judgments about what works on the basis of tests, and we often use anemic (though "significant") gains in scores to proclaim one reform better than another.
Take the on-going debate about class size, for example. Research on the benefits of small class sizes is mixed. But Nancy Flanagan offers a bracing caution: "When our only measures of student success are memorized material, spit back on a bubble-in test, then a class of 45 listening to a teacher's lecture may be indistinguishable from a class of 25 listening to the same lecture."
There may be real problems with efforts to reduce class sizes. Where, for example, do we find all the extra teachers we need to make those efforts work? (If only all those class size skeptics who would have us fire scads of teachers in struggling schools would admit that their own favorite reform suffers from the same problem.) But Flanagan's point about test scores should give us pause.
In so many ways, we set our compass by those scores. They could dictate our direction for years to come. It would be far too easy to tolerate practices that improve test scores but not much else. Worse, we're tempted to enshrine those practices in policy.
I don't mean to knock standardized tests or the people who use them. We use them. We can't simply trust our intuition about what our students might be learning. We do need valid, reliable, and--yes--standard data about how our students are doing, or all the finest sentiments about what our students should learn won't do us any good at all.
But our current tests just aren't doing the job, and that fact has huge implications for everything else we do. If we're truly honest about the urgency of school reform, we should sound every available alarm bell about the quality of our tests.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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