‘Test-and-punish’ sabotages quality of children’s education

This op-ed first appeared on 04/10/2013 on msnbc.com.

There is a saying that American students are the most tested, and the least examined, of any in the world. We test students in the U.S. far more than any other nation, in the mistaken belief that testing produces greater learning: since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2002, public schools have been required to test every child every year in third through eighth grade. Students face additional tests in high school, almost all of them primarily multiple-choice.

Policymakers have tied more and more decisions to test scores. They factor into whether students will be promoted or graduated, how much teachers will be paid, and whether they will remain employed, whether schools will receive rewards or sanctions–including, with recent policies, whether their staffs will be fired or whether they will be closed entirely. Recent cheating scandals, like those in Atlanta and Washington DC, are one result of this pressure. But cheating is rare, and there are far more wide-reaching negative consequences of this obsession.

Rather than improving education, the current desire to attach scores from a burgeoning battery of tests to student, teacher, and school decisions actually undermines the quality of education in at least three ways.

First, it dumbs down the curriculum: studies have found that schools, especially in low-income communities, are reducing or even eliminating instruction in non-tested subjects like science, social studies, and the arts. Without a well-rounded curriculum, children lack the knowledge needed to understand complex texts, to investigate and understand the world around them, and to create–the American advantage that is fast slipping away from us. High-stakes testing also drives multiple-choice instruction. As classroom activities increasingly mimic the tests, students are doing less and less of the things colleges and employers want more of: researching, writing, using technology, explaining and defending their ideas, collaborating, and solving complex problems.

Second, punishing schools for low scores creates incentives for schools to keep out and push out students who score poorly on tests. In a market-based system of school choice that is managed by test scores, schools work to get and keep the easiest students and to get rid of those who struggle to learn. Evidence shows that some charter schools avoid admitting poor students and those with disabilities, while sending the most problematic kids back to the public schools. However, district-run public schools can also boost scores by pushing out low-achieving students. This occurs through disciplinary actions, grade retention, and counseling that encourages students to transfer or drop out. Although scores go up, our children and our society suffer from the growing school-to-prison pipeline.

Finally, focusing on test-based accountability deflects attention from critical problems that need to be solved: higher rates of childhood poverty–nearly one in four children–and homelessness than any in the industrialized world; state funding systems that often spend more than twice as much on affluent schools as on poor ones; crumbling schools in many poor communities that lack textbooks, libraries, computers, and safe facilities. These disparities account for much more of the achievement gap than the effects of individual teachers, but they are tougher to confront.

The test-and-punish theory of reform seems to be grounded in a belief that learning will not occur unless children and educators face high-stakes penalties attached to test scores. Case in point:

  • Finland–the highest-scoring OECD nation on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests–has no required external testing, other than a voluntary test in the 12th grade that informs college admissions. On this test, students choose which of a set of thoughtful essay questions they will answer in each content area.
  • High-achieving Singapore tests students only once before high school. High school examinations there and in other high-ranking systems use open-ended essays and oral examinations that require students to think critically, solve complex problems, and defend their ideas.
  • Increasingly, examinations include projects such as science investigations and research papers. None of these nations use the kind of multiple-choice tests common in the U.S., and none of them use tests to rank or punish teachers or schools. All of them support children’s welfare, fund schools equitably, and recruit a highly-trained and well-supported teaching force.
  • Lastly, all of them outperform the U.S. on international tests, where American children have more trouble writing, analyzing, and defending their views, because they have much less practice in doing so.

It’s time to replace our high-stakes test-and-punish strategy with what the Finns call “intelligent accountability.” We need new assessments that are designed to reflect important skills, and we need to use them to improve teaching and learning, rather than to dole out sanctions, in a system that provides equitable opportunities to learn. Without major changes, we will, indeed, be testing our nation to death.