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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive May 2013 Standardized Tests Don't Measure Education Quality

Standardized Tests Don't Measure Education Quality

  • 05-09-2013
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Week of May 6-10, 2013


Over 14 years ago, testing expert W. James Popham summarized what was, even then, “old news” about American policymakers’ love of standardized testing:

Educators are experiencing almost relentless pressure to show their effectiveness. Unfortunately, the chief indicator by which most communities judge a school staff's success is student performance on standardized achievement tests.

It’s a bitter irony that the same testing policies that have distracted the nation from fixing what’s wrong with our education systems are still being promoted. The medicine prescribed for ailing schools has helped make 21st century schools sicker, so we double the dose. In his piece for the 140,000-member ASCD, Popham went on to say,

Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon. Tablespoons have a different measurement mission than indicating how hot or cold something is. Standardized achievement tests have a different measurement mission than indicating how good or bad a school is.

We have years of evidence about what educators and policymakers can and cannot honestly do with test results; but this evidence, typically, is not decisive in determining school testing policy. Those who advocate expanding the use and power of standardized tests continue to capture the attention of policy leaders.

In the face of severe, indisputable, and embarrassing criticism, some high-profile testing advocates have backtracked on their unqualified support for tests; however, they appear willing to sustain what many experts and education professionals say are inevitable inequalities, wrong judgments, and other harms.

For example, promising education reforms such as the Common Core State Standards are likely to carry the burden of test misuse. The purpose of the new standards, which have been adopted by 45 states, the District of Columbia, and four territories, is to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help.” AFT President Randi Weingarten does not want testing to overwhelm Common Core before teachers have time and professional development to change curricula and adjust instruction (Education Week). Weingarten said, “These standards, which hold such potential to create deeper learning, are instead creating a serious backlash—as officials seek to make them count before they make them work.”

Even as some test advocates concede the serious shortcomings of the prevailing testing regime, they want schools to press on with the tests—just iron out the rough spots in order to preserve all the good that testing does or will do as soon as they get it right. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appears to be in this category. Last week, Duncan’s audience at the annual American Educational Research Association conference appreciated his strong criticism of how some schools were misusing standardized tests. For example, he alluded to a Florida case where some k-2 teachers have sued because they were evaluated based on grades of students they never taught and are already years ahead. However, Duncan lost the favor of many attendees when he said, “The solution to mediocre tests is not to abandon assessment” (EdSource Today).

That sleight of hand mischaracterized testing critics who strongly favor better, proven, and responsible assessments such as formative assessments that help students and teachers identify individual strengths and needs as well as inequities within the system (EdSource Today, Education Week). Rather, Duncan’s critics take issue with policies that require schools to use tests irresponsibly. Further, many of these tests and their uses are not just mediocre, they are actively harmful. 

Duncan’s position echoed that which has followed recent testing scandals. For example, cheating at all levels of Atlanta Public Schools and an emerging Washington, D.C. scandal are widely interpreted as the acts of a few bad apples or weak oversight and regulation. However, these incidents expose a much deeper core problem. Attaching test scores to high-stakes decisions, including judgments of individual teachers’ competence, affects careers for teachers and learning opportunities for students. The temptation is powerful to falsify or cheat or teach to the test (EdSource Today). High-level administrators and high-profile politicians such as Duncan rarely dwell on the structural flaws that are inherent in fiercely competitive, score-driven American schooling—flaws that work in concert with unfairly distributed resources. 

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.