Why testing fails our schools

September 28, 2010

Adam Sanchez examines the claims and counter-claims about standardized testing.

SOMETIMES, THE gap between what ordinary people want and what politicians do seems dangerously large.

For example, who at the California Environmental Protection Agency thought it made sense to allow BP, the now infamous destroyer of the Gulf of Mexico, to have any role whatsoever in developing the state's environmental curriculum for more than 6 million children?

And who told House Democrats it would be a good political move to call for a short-term extension of the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy while every state in the country is facing budget shortfalls?

Similarly, it can be hard to make sense of the reasons why politicians continue to push for increasing the role that standardized tests play in education.

Most of us have heard at least one story of a student writing a word or drawing a picture--whether a smiley face or an expletive--into the multiple choice bubbles of a test. And I'd challenge anyone to find a single teacher who claims those bubbles can tell you much at all about their students. Yet the message from those at the top of the political ladder is markedly different.

The standardized testing mania is hurting our schools

Washington, D.C., was recently awarded $75 million in Race to the Top funds just weeks after Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee fired 241 teachers because of their students' standardized test scores. New York City was also given $300 million just weeks after a scandal over miscalculated test results proved that neither an increasing emphasis on testing nor mayoral control had improved student performance.

While both New York and Washington deserve much more money than they're getting for their badly underfunded schools, these examples reveal the real purpose of the Obama administration's flagship education program. Rather than its stated goal of providing "competitive grants to encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform," Race to the Top rewards the states that take a hard line toward teachers' unions and increase emphasis on standardized testing.

In order to explain the disconnect between what most students and teachers see as common-sense solutions to the school crisis (lower class sizes and less testing, for a start) and what the Democratic administration is pushing for, it is helpful to look back at the history of standardized tests and return to some basic arguments around what they do and don't measure.

ONE OF the most useful resources on this subject is Alfie Kohn's book The Case Against Standardized Testing. Kohn points out that more than anything else, what standardized tests tell us is "how big the students' houses are":

A study of math scores on the 1992 [National Assessment of Educational Progress] found that the combination of four variables that had nothing to do with instruction (number of parents living at home, parents' educational background, type of community and state poverty rate) explained a whopping 89 percent of the differences in state scores...

In Massachusetts, five factors explained 90 percent of the variance in scores on the state's MCAS exam, leading a researcher to conclude that students' performance "has almost everything to do with parental socioeconomic backgrounds and less to do with teachers, curricula, or what the children learn in the classroom." Another study looked just at the poverty level in each of 593 districts in Ohio and found a .80 correlation with 1997 scores on that state's proficiency test, meaning that this measure alone (which didn't even include other non-school factors) explained nearly two thirds of the differences in test results...

Even a quick look at the grades given to Florida schools under the state's new rating system found that "no school where less than 10 percent of the students qualify for free lunch scored below a C, and no school where more than 80 percent of the students qualify scored above a C."

Since Kohn's book was published in 2000, other more recent studies have reached similar results.

On the other hand, standardized tests ignore a whole host of qualities that a teacher would need to assess a student. As educator and activist Bill Ayers writes:

Standardized tests can't measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.

On top of this, as Kohn explains, standardized tests are created with a built-in prejudice:

Pretend you are charged with creating such a test. Since all students have been exposed to classroom instruction, what's a good way to ensure that not everyone will be able to answer a given question? Simple: Design it so that knowledge gained outside of schools provides a big advantage. Naturally, such knowledge is more likely to be acquired by students whose parents are affluent and well educated, students who have attended a good preschool, own a computer, overhear thoughtful conversations about current events, are taken on interesting trips, and so on.

In fact, many standardized tests are designed to limit test questions to those that are answered correctly by the students who do well on the test overall. What this means is that questions answered correctly by those who don't typically do well on a test or by a minority group, such as African-Americans, are often discarded for the next years' test-takers, constantly increasing test bias toward privileged students.

So it should be no surprise that a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which surveyed a vast sample of commonly used tests, including civil service or other pre-employment exams and university entrance exams, revealed that the common procedure used to assess test bias for over 40 years is, in fact, itself biased.

But for many school reformers, the answer to the testing problem is simply using a new model of compiling test statistics. Many are looking toward value-added models, which they claim resolve the problem of socioeconomic differences by adjusting for students' prior achievement and demographic characteristics--the resulting measures are supposed to indicate how much teachers have contributed to a child's education.

But as a new comprehensive study by the Economic Policy Institute concludes, "Although value-added approaches improve over these other methods, the claim that they can 'level the playing field' and provide reliable, valid and fair comparisons of individual teachers is overstated. Even when student demographic characteristics are taken into account, the value-added measures are too unstable (i.e., vary widely) across time, across the classes that teachers teach, and across tests that are used to evaluate instruction."

In fact, in several studies, up to 35 percent of teachers evaluated using the value-added model moved from being categorized as "most effective" to "least effective" (or vice versa) from one year to the next.

The conclusion we should draw was succinctly declared by Karen Lewis, the newly elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union, in her victory speech: "These tests labeled our students, families and educators failures because standardized tests reveal more about a student's zip code than a student's academic growth."

IT IS also important to note that the original use of standardized tests in American schools was a result of the eugenics movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Eugenicists claimed that those at the top of the social ladder had proven their racial superiority, while those at the bottom were biologically incapable of success. They promoted the sterilization, segregation and deportation of those deemed "unfit" to reproduce.

As educational scholar Alan Stoskopf has pointed out, this racist ideology:

worked its way into educational reform movements of the 1910s and '20s, playing a key role in teacher training, curriculum development and school organization. It also provided the guiding ideology behind the first IQ tests. Those tests were used to track students into separate and unequal education courses, establish the first gifted and talented programs and promote the idea that educational standards could be measured through single-numbered scores...by the early 1920s, more than 2 million American school children were being tested primarily for academic tracking purposes.

Unfortunately, any recognition of the racist origin of standardized testing is completely absent from the contemporary debate.

But while standardized tests have been around for over a century, only recently have these tests played such an important role in education.

Up until the last few decades, tests rarely determined whether a student passed into the next grade-level or graduated from high school. And even more rarely were standardized tests used to measure a teacher's performance in the classroom. Today, school funding, teacher pay and bonuses, and the future education and life of a student are all tied to standardized government-mandated tests.

The current battle over high-stakes testing and accountability began with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. Published under the Reagan administration, the report warned that the "average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched," and that this meant "the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

Published right after a severe recession, A Nation at Risk blamed the trouble that U.S. corporations were having competing on the international market on the poor quality of public schools. Although the empirical data in the report has since been challenged, A Nation at Risk set in motion a series of policy initiatives and waves of reform led not by educators, but by corporate executives and government officials.

When politicians and CEOs turned to neoliberal ideology as a way to restructure the economy, their relative success in restoring profit rates of U.S. corporations led many at the top of society to conclude that similar "restructuring" should occur in public education.

The epitome of neoliberal policies in school reform was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB, passed in 2001, created a host of unattainable achievement goals measured through massive amounts of high-stakes standardized tests. Schools were set up to fail so the federal government could swoop in to "restructure" (i.e. privatize) them. The neoliberal "reformers" aim to reduce government funding of education and to reorganize the school system in order to better fit the needs of American corporations.

When the world was thrust into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, many people hoped neoliberal ideology would be thrown into the dustbin of history. Yet instead, the crisis has provided an opportunity for the ruling class to accelerate its attacks on public education.

After giving the banksters a blank check, the Obama administration is making states compete for a limited pool of education funds that are tied to how well those states implement the administration's agenda of charter schools, standardized tests, merit pay, and attacking the teacher's unions.

This context is crucial to understanding how standardized tests have seeped into every aspect of schooling today.

As Sharon Nichols and David Berliner point out in their book Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools, from a business perspective, the system of "incentives and threats" created by high-stakes testing "seem an inappropriate theory to use with teachers and their students, unless they are considered more like laborers than they are like knowledge workers."

But that's precisely the neoliberal vision: To create a tiered school system that makes a quality education affordable to a few while the rest of us "laborers" are forced into mindless, memorization-driven classrooms that are horribly underfunded, overcrowded and dominated by teach-to-the-test and textbook inculcation.

OF COURSE, part of this vision involves lining the pockets of the parasitic testing industry.

Last year, in order to take all the tests required for my initial teaching license, I paid nearly $500 to the Educational Testing Service (ETS). ETS is one of what Americans for Educational Testing Reform (AETR) call the "Big 3" nonprofit testing companies that also include ACT, Inc. and College Board. As AETR's Web site explains:

These monopolistic corporations consistently and shamelessly take advantage of American students and aspiring professionals for financial gain, and have been doing so for many years.

The young Americans that take exams from the Big 3 are not typically customers by choice--they are almost invariably required (by academic institutions or employers) to take specific exams from the Big 3. As a result of this captive customer base, the Big 3 enjoy unbreakable natural monopolies in many testing areas. Furthermore, the Big 3 are essentially government-endorsed monopolies as a result of the "non-profit" status that the IRS has granted each of them, which effectively immunizes them from prosecution under antitrust law.

As statistics compiled by AETR reveal, these three "nonprofits" pay their CEOs an average of over $800,000 per year and make an average of almost twice the profit of America's other largest nonprofit companies.

Other testing behemoths that don't bother trying to hide behind the illusion of nonprofit status include CTB/McGraw-Hill, Harcourt Assessment, Pearson Educational Measurement and Riverside Publishing.

Because of the mandates of No Child Left Behind over the last 10 years, this industry has nearly tripled in size. According to a stateline.org report, "a year before No Child Left Behind was enacted, states collectively spent almost $423 million on standardized tests...During the 2007- 08 school year, states will spend almost $1.1 billion on these tests."

Each year, millions more dollars are spent on lining the pockets of the testing industry, rather than hiring new teachers to lower class sizes. Earlier this year, 3,000 aspiring teachers showed up to a job fair in Oregon for what the Oregonian optimistically estimated as "at best, a few hundred education jobs." It's likely that this bleak environment for young teachers is similar all around the country.

To turn the tide in favor of teachers and students, we will need to build a movement that can take on the testing industry and call for an end to the oppressive, racist and classist testing regime.

In 2008, when eighth graders in the South Bronx successfully boycotted the statewide social studies test, we got a glimpse of what that movement could look like.

More recently, United Teachers Los Angeles is leading an important fight against the LA Times, for publishing a vitriolic attack on teachers that was based on flawed, value-added-based test scores, and included 6,000 elementary school teachers' names, rankings and places of employment.

We can't allow this atrocious scapegoating of teachers who are unfairly overburdened by support staff layoffs and overcrowded classrooms to stand. Let's counter the calls to tie teachers' pay to students' test scores with our own demand: abolish standardized tests.

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