The country’s obsession with high-stakes testing is an expensive, destructive failure. Students who can least afford it pay the biggest price.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows the United States made faster progress toward improving math and reading scores, and closing gaps among racial groups, before the federal No Child Left Behind law than has been made since. The law has not only failed to drive better school quality and equity, it has caused real harm on both counts. Unfortunately, the coming Common Core tests will mean even more testing insanity, but not significantly better assessments or improved schools.
NCLB has promoted widespread teaching to the test and pushed out important subjects like music, art, social studies, and science. It has damaged school climate and student engagement and contributed to a national epidemic of cheating. It has fostered student pushouts, feeding the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The harm has been most severe in schools serving low-income communities.
The law’s negative consequences have fueled a growing national rebellion against test overuse and misuse. Parents, students, and teachers have organized, boycotted tests, demonstrated, and won victories at state and local levels.
National leaders acknowledge NCLB’s failures. Education Secretary Arne Duncan decried teaching to the test and the loss of attention to non-tested subjects. President Obama told NBC’s Education Nation, “I can’t tell you how many teachers I meet who say, ‘You know what? [NCLB’s focus on tests] makes school less interesting for kids. And as a consequence, I’m ending up really shrinking my curriculum, what I can do in terms of creativity inside the classroom.’”
Tragically, some of our best teachers have already been driven out. In her viral resignation video, Illinois teacher Ellie Rubenstein said, “Raising students’ test scores on standardized tests is now the only goal, and in order to achieve it, the creativity, flexibility, and spontaneity that create authentic learning environments have been eliminated.”
Einstein’s definition of insanity
Of course, we need better assessment systems. What we have now—standardized test scores in a few academic subjects—gives a narrow and misleading picture of our students and schools. It leaves out most of what parents, colleges, and employers tell pollsters they want kids to learn. These include good citizenship, social responsibility, conflict resolution, perseverance, self-confidence, self-discipline, critical thinking, and communication skills.
Unfortunately, policymakers seem poised to demonstrate Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Instead of fundamentally shifting from NCLB’s test-and-punish approach, they promise new-and-improved standards and tests. Secretary Duncan pressured states to adopt new Common Core State Standards with Race to the Top grant money and waivers from NCLB sanctions.
But Common Core exams will not be a significant improvement. They will remain largely multiple choice, with just a handful of performance tasks—too few to relieve the pressure to teach to multiple-choice questions.
Heavy reliance on scores to make educational decisions will continue, producing often-inaccurate results. Already some highly respected teachers have been judged “in need of improvement.” As with NCLB, schools serving low-income communities will be deemed “inadequate” and face unhelpful sanctions.
America’s children, classrooms, and communities deserve better. High-stakes testing should be replaced with assessment alternatives that bring better results—such as those used in Finland and by the New York Performance Standards Consortium. Finland gained world-class student achievement with a focus on equity and well-trained and supported teachers who use classroom-based assessments instead of standardized tests.
The Consortium schools use teacher-designed performance tasks, and have higher graduation rates and better college-going and completion rates than do schools focused on preparing students for high-stakes standardized exams.
To allow for the time and resources for the creation of better assessment systems, there must be an indefinite moratorium on Common Core exams. The sooner we set a new direction for public school assessment, the sooner we can create classrooms that foster the skills and qualities our students need to succeed.
Lisa Guisbond is an assessment reform analyst and Monty Neill is executive director of FairTest.