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Can We Test Our Way to Academic Success for All Kids?
By Dean S. G. Grant

How do we improve schooling for all children? Some observers suggest change depends on new subject matter standards proposed by professional organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, or by state education departments, such as the New York State Department of Education’s Learning Standards for Social Studies. Others believe organizational restructuring through smaller classes and block scheduling is key. Still others assert that real change requires high-stakes assessments of the kind championed under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. The assumption here is that testing drives much of what teachers do, and so real classroom change will occur if and when tests command everyone’s attention.

If true, this last idea is attractive: Change the test and one changes education. But is it really that simple: Can we really test our way into academic success for all students?

Let’s look at three assumptions that policymakers hold and at the consequences of those assumptions. One assumption is that the new standards and tests are more demanding. The second is that tests drive teaching. And the third is that high-stakes testing help all children achieve powerful learning.

Standards and tests are more demanding. A key assumption behind much of the rhetoric around testing is that new state standards and tests are more rigorous and demanding, and that these policies will ratchet up the teaching and learning that occurs in classrooms.

Some of the intended consequences are surfacing. Many teachers buy the argument that the standards are more rigorous and endorse some elements of the new state-level tests. For example, New York social studies teachers generally applaud the movement toward document-based questions. Moreover, depending where and how one looks, student gains on reading and mathematics exams are appearing.

But the issue of whether the tests represent powerful learning nags. Case in point, when the new and presumably more ambitious Texas social studies test was administered, 98% of the students passed. One might attribute this terrific achievement to the high quality of Texas teachers. But as researchers in other school subjects are finding, another reason might be low quality of the test itself.

Now many Texas teachers, like their colleagues around the country, teach well beyond the state test. But what about their peers who don’t bring such ambitions to class? Presumably, they are the ones that policymakers most want to influence. Yet if those teachers interpret the tests as their more ambitious colleagues do, then the leverage the state hopes to apply crumbles. Rather than an inducement or support for powerful teaching and learning then, the tests may be viewed as more of the same.

Tests drive teaching. Tests drive teaching, or so we often hear. This second assumption is tantalizingly simple: Create a new test that children must pass in order to graduate and one realizes two immediate benefits: Teachers will teach the material on the test, and students will be motivated to study and to pass the tests. 

And at least one of those consequences is occurring: Teachers are studying the exams, talking about them with some of their colleagues, and preparing classroom activities that replicate testing parameters.

But a raft of unintended consequences is also developing. First, while some teachers continue to be adventurous, many report pressure to do more traditional teaching. Teachers are being told, “just lecture” and “just use the textbook.” Second, the curriculum taught in some teachers’ classrooms is being dampened down. Many teachers note the constant press of through the content that typically shows up on exams and to ignore ideas that do not show up on the state exams. Finally, some teachers are reducing both their instruction and the curriculum to test-related activities. Teaching and learning in those classes is less about embracing rich, complex ideas than it is about practicing for the test.

All children can learn. The authors of No Child Left Behind can rightly say that they brought the embarrassment of differential student outcomes into public consciousness. But how will we provide all children with powerful learning experiences? Will continuous, high-stakes testing be the vehicle through which every student has access to a rich education?

Testing advocates are right on one count: Virtually all teachers and school children are attentive to the new tests. Fourth graders may not know why they are taking battery after battery of state exams, but they know from the pep rallies and daily encouragements and worried looks on their teachers’ faces that these tests are important to someone.

But garnering teachers’ and students’ attention is not the same thing as kindling the caring, commitment, and motivation necessary for kids and their teachers to wrestle with important ideas. In fact, one trend teachers report is a continuum of negative student responses—from fear to ennui. A fourth grade teacher quoted a boy who, having finished the English-Language Arts test, told her he was glad it was over. Saying that she was too, the boy added, “Now I can worry about the math test!” High school students presumably have much more at stake, yet teachers report flagging interest in reviewing for the tests and for the myriad extra-help sessions schools and districts provide.

Implications. Three implications seem clear. First, new curriculum standards and new state-level tests seem like fairly stale means of leveraging and supporting powerful teaching and learning. The carrot that testing programs offer—graduating from high school—may not be enough to outweigh the effects of a stick that is boring at best.

Second, we must ask what kind of change the new tests support. There simply is no consistent empirical evidence demonstrating a positive correlation between tests and good teaching. So as change without improvement increasingly becomes a possibility, we get closer to social critic Rene Dubos’ adage that, “sometimes the more measurable drives out the more important.”

Finally, neither teachers nor students are pawns. Although policymakers may think that they can corral them, teachers and students still exercise a “pocket veto” on new policies.

Substantive change is always unsettling. So, to reform a social institution as complex as schooling is bound to generate some frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty. But a one-size-fits-all action like testing seems ill suited to achieve the stated goal. #

S.G. Grant is dean of the School of Education at Binghamton University, State University of New York.



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