The New York Times came out with a pretty all-encompassing education editorial over the weekend, taking a crack at standardized testing, teacher preparation programs, teacher evaluation, comparisons to Finland, federal education reforms like Race to the Top, and implementation of Common Core State Standards. It's a lot to digest, and makes several valid points, and can easily be misinterpreted. We hope that it's not.
The Times attempts to undo the Gordian knot of U.S. education by pinning much of the blame on the annual high-stakes tests required by No Child Left Behind. In this narrative, NCLB fueled our nationwide "obsession" with testing -- and students' mediocre performance on tests, particularly when compared to peers in other countries -- and this has led to teachers to 'teach to the test,' to show the progress mandated by NCLB. Teachers are further hamstrung by newer reforms that tie their continued employment to evaluations based on test scores; even further, many teachers are not adequately prepared before they enter the classroom, challenging them to help students. The end result is that teachers, parents, students, and administrators are all stressed and overwhelmed.
The Times makes several good points, and its ultimate conclusion -- that high-quality tests should be administered once or twice a year -- is sound. But its position could easily be misinterpreted to support current efforts to scale back on testing that are popping up across the country.
The real problem with the current tests is mentioned only briefly in the editorial: Many of the current tests aren't good tests. They don't hold students to a rigorous bar and don't evaluate deep knowledge. Our analysis shows that of states' current science tests, only a fraction hold students to the high bar set by the National Assessment of Education Progress. Unsurprisingly, the states with the strongest assessments, like Massachusetts, also regularly have some of the strongest test scores and most coherent teacher-support systems. The root of the problem isn't with testing, it's with the actual tests.
That's why it's so important that we get new tests right. Two testing consortiums, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, are creating tests aligned to the new Common Core State Standards. Improvements in technology over the last 12 years and the new standards could combine to create rigorous tests that accurately reflect what students need to learn, and give informative feedback to teachers struggling to help students.
But being fearful of the results -- particularly in the transition -- and dialing back on rigor will only undermine the entire enterprise. We need to overhaul our testing system, and we have an opportunity to do it well. The Times editorial focuses on very real, and potentially very negative, consequences that could result from testing and improper implementation of new tests. To circumvent those consequences, let's obsess about making a good test.