Assessments Are Vital for Healthy Schools

Standards, tests, and accountability policies are merely tools. They don’t make learning happen. Tests themselves don’t narrow the curriculum; they also can’t close achievement gaps. How educators use these tools is what is critical. Superintendent Starr argues that testing and accountability are important for “developing indicators that can inform an organization’s actions.” But his emphasis on assessment and accountability as tools for managing education bureaucracy is only part of the story—and cold comfort for families who want and need the information to access the best education for their children now.

The goal of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been to put the focus of education policy squarely on students. Most importantly, then, test results provide parents and teachers with vital information about student learning, and accountability policies challenge districts and schools to meet individual student needs with effective teachers, strong curricula, choices for families and students, and break-the-mold interventions for failing schools. For over a decade now, test-based accountability has acted as a sort of insurance policy to make sure disadvantaged and struggling students are not ignored. I take Superintendent Starr at his word that his proposed moratorium on testing and accountability would be temporary. But I am skeptical. After more than a decade of resistance to NCLB by the education establishment, I find something disingenuous about the argument that schools ought not to be held accountable to the standards states themselves set for grade-level student achievement. Helping all students read and cipher on grade level is a modest goal for our children and grandchildren. As long as a significant portion of students aren’t reaching these so-called “outdated” state standards, we must continue to assess the skills and hold schools accountable for the results. States’ efforts to ensure college and career readiness for all depend on it.

Testing Is Critically Important

Because of assessments, we can track the academic progress of American students. Recent results on our Nation’s Report Card (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP), for example, tell us that during the NCLB era, student achievement in reading and math improved for African American, Hispanic, and white students alike, and achievement gaps among these groups narrowed. As Paul Peterson recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal (August 7, 2013), between 1999 and 2008, on the NAEP, white nine-year-olds gained 11 points in math, African American students gained 13 points, and Hispanic student performance improved by 21 points. In reading, white nine-year-olds gained 7 points, black performance jumped by 18 points, and Hispanic scores climbed 14 points. (Importantly, Peterson also notes that gains have diminished since the Obama administration began to dismantle NCLB.)

Tests also identify where we are falling short. For example, despite significant progress, NAEP scores reveal that just 34 percent of our nation’s 8th graders are proficient in reading and 43 percent are proficient in math. The achievement of students in American high schools, where state testing is minimal (and accountability weakest), hasn’t budged in four decades.

Test-based accountability policies have demonstrated unequivocally that what gets measured matters. A recent report by Common Core, Inc., its title intended to demonstrate that students are “Learning Less” because of assessments, included some interesting findings: ninety percent of teachers say that when a subject is included in a state’s system of testing, it is taken more seriously. Eighty percent of teachers say that their schools have been offering more “extra help for students struggling in math and language arts” in recent years. This is good news. This is student assessment used to inform classroom practice, which is what it’s meant to do. The truly important questions we face in education reform aren’t about whether we should test students but rather about how schools will respond to what tests tell us about student needs, and what districts and schools will do differently to ensure that all students learn.

The Testing Critics

Resistance to assessment, accountability, and transparency remains fierce, and not at all temporary.

Critics attack testing from all possible angles, and frankly, the arguments are not particularly coherent. For example, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claims that states have “dummied down” their standards yet at the same time, his department is giving states waivers to provide “relief” from the unrealistically ambitious expectations of NCLB.

Some argue that the real problem with annual state tests of grade-level reading and math skills is that they force teachers to narrow their focus, distracting teachers from other subjects and the more sophisticated academic skills they would otherwise engender in students.

But no one has ever demonstrated that mastering grade-level reading and math skills hurts students’ ability to acquire higher-order thinking skills. Nor has anyone shown that state standards in reading and math endanger students’ social and emotional well-being. While the narrowing curriculum rallying cry is popular in opinion surveys, assessments such as NAEP reveal no signs of declining achievement in science or history or any other supposedly “squeezed out” subject.

Annual state assessments in Maryland take six hours, the equivalent of just one school day. Yet testing critics would have us believe that the creativity of teachers is completely shackled for the other roughly 179 days of the school year. This argument remains popular, even as teachers report their preparation and ability to teach critical thinking and complex problem solving to be limited, and even while so many schools are achieving not-so-stellar results on what are dubbed as less-than-sophisticated current state tests.

Many critics argue that annual state tests in reading and mathematics are inappropriate because not everything students need to learn can be measured by standardized tests, downplaying what even our so-called “crude” tests reveal about serious gaps in the important skills students need. And it is still not uncommon to hear educators insist that assessing students in reading and math is unfair, especially to students likely not to perform well. You see, the schools are fine; it’s the students of color, students in poverty, special education students, and English language learners who are the problem.

The collection of objections is endless. But all of them evade a simple explanation for why education standards with regular assessments of student progress, transparency for results, consequences for school failure, and choices for families have always been under fire. They demand public accountability for education systems across the nation, and many, many public-school systems and educators in the United States simply reject the concept out of hand.

If one wants to understand the true interests of the education establishment when it comes to pausing test-based accountability, one only need take a close look at the NCLB waivers given by Secretary Duncan to about 40 states to date. The waivers have allowed states to set race- and income-based goals, that is, to lower expectations for student achievement by race and income. Most such student-achievement targets were established for “reporting purposes only” and are no longer used for any meaningful school accountability purposes. Most states now combine student subgroups, previously identified by race, ethnicity, economic disadvantage, special education, and English language learner status, into opaque “super-subgroups” that are very purposefully less transparent. We are turning back the clock to the days when expecting less from the kids who need our public schools the most was acceptable practice. It is the “soft bigotry of low expectations” President Bush so rightly decried.

The Legacy of NCLB

No Child Left Behind and its state testing mandates have always been maligned by protectors of the education status quo. But our memories are too short. Before NCLB, the education establishment thought it fine, even appropriate, to set different academic expectations for kids based on their ethnicity, zip code, or parents’ income. Overwhelmingly, poor and minority students were denied meaningful educational opportunities because of the abysmal quality of schools they attended. Parents had scant information to compare schools. Taxpayers got little more than an ever-increasing invoice for our schools.

Under NCLB, for the first time, schools were required to measure improvement in student achievement across all groups of students, and each state, district, and school was required to lay the results out on the table for parents and the public to see. Parents now know whether their children are meeting state standards in reading and math and which students are being educated, by whom, and in what schools. Taxpayers now know more about where their dollars are being invested and what the results are. We have sophisticated data that can be used to improve learning in classrooms in real time. We can do a better job evaluating teachers, informed at least in part by the performance of their students. We can tell how students are performing against a standard, and compare them to students in other schools, districts, and states. We can redirect our resources to where there is the greatest student need.

We’ve made significant improvements in student achievement but we are far from the finish line. State test data reveal significant achievement gaps yet to be addressed, even in high-spending, high-achieving Montgomery County, Maryland, considered by many to be one of the best school systems in the nation. In Montgomery County, 59 percent of white elementary-school students score at what the state defines as the “advanced” level on the Maryland State Assessment in reading, while only 26 percent of African American students can boast the same. On the state math test, 52 percent of white elementary-school students compared to 18 percent of African American students score at the top performance level.

These results don’t warrant any kind of hiatus from state testing. Kicking the can down the road on assessment and accountability, in Montgomery County and in school systems across the nation, will neither help close achievement gaps nor prepare students for the Common Core.

The current debate about student testing is misguided. Tests are measurement tools. When I step on my bathroom scale and am not happy with what it records as my weight, it isn’t the scale’s problem. I can boycott stepping on the scale, or I can decide to examine my lifestyle, determine whether I am exercising too little or eating too much, and come up with a game plan to reach an improvement goal.

Our annual state tests amount to stepping on a scale. If our test results are not what they should be, we need to ask: How are education systems radically reconsidering the way they use their resources to improve outcomes? How are they changing the ways they prepare teachers, pay teachers, organize the school day, use technology for learning, and get our neediest students access to our best and brightest teachers?

Common Core Is No Panacea

More than 12 years have passed since I worked with President George W. Bush, Senator Edward Kennedy, and other congressional leaders to pass No Child Left Behind. Despite the vastly improved information we now have, and that we could use more effectively to improve student outcomes, too many educators remain engaged in wearied debates about whether assessment is an important tool for measuring student learning.

This doesn’t bode well for implementation of the Common Core. While all variety of education pundits, reformers, and policymakers discuss the merits of upgrading our public education system to the Common Core and college and career readiness for all, the real battle on the ground is whether educators believe schools are capable of or should be expected to help students meet even basic academic standards.

The very same critics who claim teachers are prevented from teaching higher-order skills because of current testing and accountability policies also argue that we need to put a stop to testing and accountability because teachers aren’t prepared for the higher demands of the Common Core.

I support the Common Core standards. I believe our nation’s schools need a challenging and common set of academic expectations that is consistent with the demands of the knowledge economy and global competition. But let’s not kid ourselves. It is right to be concerned about whether enough of our nation’s teachers are ready for the Common Core. And the Common Core is pie in the sky unless students meet basic grade-level expectations in reading and math, a goal we have fallen woefully short of meeting to date.

This debate just brings out the skeptic in me. I am afraid that we aren’t serious. We aren’t serious in believing that all kids can learn. We aren’t serious about ensuring that poor and minority kids get the education they deserve.

Is learning more than a test score? Of course. Are reading and math all we care about when it comes to student achievement? No. Is there always the promise of better tests and better-prepared teachers down the road? Sure. But does any of this suggest we should we have a moratorium on testing or “hit pause” on school-based accountability? No way.

-Margaret Spellings

Margaret Spellings was U.S. secretary of education from 2005 to 2009 and is now president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

This article is part of a forum on high-stakes testing. For another take, please see A Testing Moratorium Is Necessary,” by Joshua P. Starr.

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Starr, J.P., and Spellings, M. (2014). Examining High-Stakes Testing. Education Next, 14(1), 70-77.

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