[Former] U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said, "Anyone who opposes annual testing of children is an apologist for a broken system of education that dismisses certain children and classes of children as unteachable." When we do not know whether or not a child is learning, how will we ever provide that child with a quality education?The statement is peculiar on a number of grounds (for example, “broken system.” Our educational system consistently produced one of the most learned and curious populations the world has ever seen, right through the end of the 20th century. The system had, and does have, problems, but it has never been “broken”), but the presupposition that testing is the only way of assessing learning is the one I want to focus on here.
The DOE webpage goes on to discuss what it calls “MYTHS AND REALITIES ABOUT TESTING”:
TESTING MYTHAs I said above, one of the presuppositions here is that only testing can determine “learning results” (whatever that means). The odd thing about “the reality” here is that it is actually an affirmation of “the myth.” That is, the belief that testing “helps teachers understand what their students need” is based on the idea that a pre-set body of goals can encompass necessary learning—and such a belief, by itself, suppresses experimentation in teaching and in learning.
Testing suppresses teaching and learning.
A teacher is effective when a student learns. It is impossible to determine teaching effectiveness without determining learning results. A teacher can present a great lesson, but if the students do not understand, then the lesson has no value.
Testing students on what they are taught has always been a part of teaching. The process of testing students on what they are learning over a course of instruction is universally understood and appreciated. Testing helps teachers understand what their students need, helps students understand what they need to learn, and helps parents understand how they might help their children.
TESTING MYTHThe fact is that testing (when it is used as the sole basis for advancement and for school assessment) narrows the curriculum. Period. It can only do so: No test can possibly be comprehensive; all tests must be narrowing.
Testing narrows the curriculum by rewarding test-taking skills.
Surely a quality education reaches far beyond the confines of any specific test. But annual testing is important. It establishes benchmarks of student knowledge. Tests keyed to rigorous state academic standards provide a measure of student knowledge and skills. If the academic standards are truly rigorous, student learning will be as well.
TESTING MYTHSure, testing is a part of teaching, but when learning is evaluated only by tests, the tests become all of learning. In such a situation, a teacher has no choice but to “teach to the test.”
Testing promotes "teaching to the test."
Those who say testing gets in the way of learning frame a false dichotomy. Testing is part of teaching and learning. Gifted and inspiring teachers use tests to motivate students as well as to assess to their learning. Effective teachers recognize the value of testing and know how to employ testing in instruction.
TESTING MYTHIt is fine to talk about “standards,” but what are they and who established them? Generally, they have been established by administrators and influenced by legislatures as much as by teachers. It’s quite scary to legislate what “a student should know,” for this can lead to biased standards. It is extremely difficult to determine what the appropriate standards are for any specific situation. Trying to establish generalized standards is impossible.
Testing does not measure what a student should know.
In a strong accountability system, the curriculum is driven by academic standards, and annual tests are tied to the standards. With this in place, tests not only measure what a student should know but also provide a good indication of whether or not the student has indeed learned the material covered by the curriculum.
TESTING MYTHIt’s not the test itself that is the problem, but the importance placed on it. Making it analogous to an annual physical check-up shows a misunderstanding of both activities. Ultimately, all a test shows is how well the taker did on that particular test on that particular date. It should not be used to predict future activity (as has happened in the past, leading to the placing of able students who did poorly on a test in remedial environments, for example).
Annual testing places too much emphasis on a single exam.
Most Americans see the importance of visiting a physician for an annual checkup. They also recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and monitoring their health throughout the year. Annual testing provides important information on student achievement, so teachers and parents may determine how best to improve student performance and diagnose problems that might be associated with poor performance. If a single annual test were the only device a teacher used to gauge student performance, it would indeed be inadequate. Effective teachers assess their students in various ways during the school year. As they do this, they not only monitor student achievement but also help to ensure that their students will excel on annual tests.
TESTING MYTHA little bit of bait-and-switch? From testing we suddenly get to a “good evaluation system.” Yes, a good evaluation system might include testing, but it should be based on much more, including the observations made by teachers.
Testing discriminates against different styles of test takers.
A well-designed evaluation system accommodates special needs. Evaluating the performance of all students is not easy. Some students do have trouble taking tests. Some students score poorly for reasons outside the classroom. A good evaluation system will reflect the diversity of student learning and achievement.
TESTING MYTHIt is the last line that is the problem here, the claim that testing “can change the ways schools operate.” Yes, they can make them more focused on tests. It is easy to use numbers to make an argument—they look as though they defy argument. However, they should be only a small part of any decision-making process. “Useful information?” Perhaps the person who wrote that should find a copy of that old supplemental Economics text, Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics.
Testing provides little helpful information and accomplishes nothing.
A good evaluation system provides invaluable information that can inform instruction and curriculum, help diagnose achievement problems and inform decision making in the classroom, the school, the district and the home. Testing is about providing useful information and it can change the way schools operate.
TESTING MYTHHmmm… speaking of lying with statistics: I wonder how many high-poverty and high-minority schools there are? And I wonder what the criteria were for establishing which schools to include? Not that it matters: any test that is meant to cover all students in such a large country has to be biased towards the middle—and the middle, in this country, is neither poor nor of color.
Testing hurts the poor and people of color.
The fact is that millions of young people—many from low-income families, many people of color-are being left behind every day because of low expectations for their academic achievement and a lack of adequate measures to determine academic achievement. These are the students who stand to benefit the most from annual testing. A strong accountability system will make it impossible to ignore achievement gaps where they exist. Moreover, where testing systems are now in place, low-income and minority students are indeed excelling. A recent study reports that there are more than 4,500 high-poverty and high-minority schools nationwide that scored in the top one-third on the state tests.
TESTING MYTHI wonder what basis there is for this statement on frustration? Was it Ron Paige, whose “Houston miracle” of reduced drop-out rates was proved to be all smoke and mirrors? I suspect that as many students drop out because they are bored… and that more drop out because of other situations completely. I’m not sure that testing increases drop-out rates, but I doubt it decreases them, either.
Testing will increase dropout rates and create physical and emotional illness in children.
The overwhelming majority of students who drop out of school do so because they are frustrated. They cannot read or write or learn. Testing helps with the early identification of students who are having trouble learning so they may get the services they need to succeed. Testing, in any form, does sometimes cause anxiety. Effective teachers understand this and help students prepare for it. Testing is a part of life, and young people need to be equipped to deal with it.