Stop Requiring Choice Programs to Take State Test

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

There is a legitimate diversity of views on what constitutes a good education.  We should be no more willing to impose the “right” kind of education on people than we would impose the “right” religion or the “right” political preference.  Reasonable people disagree about what constitutes the good life and the government in a free society should not be in the business of severely restricting that range of disagreement.

Unfortunately, even when we expand the set of publicly-funded education providers to include charter and private schools we still very often require that students attending those schools take the state test, designed to measure the teaching of state standards and curriculum.  But what if we want something other than the state vision of a good education encapsulated in state standards and testing?  Too bad.  You still have choice…. sort of.  ”There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one, and they’re all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same.”

You might respond that state testing, curriculum, and standards are not so constraining as to meaningfully restrict choice.  That might be the case in some states right now, but over time the clear goal of the standards-based reform movement is to drive particular instructional changes.  I think they are very likely to fail in that effort (because teachers are powerful and don’t like being bossed around), but they may at least partially succeed and in so doing restrict the range of differing visions of a good education much more than is desirable in a free society.  Besides, counting on others failing in pursuing a bad plan is a risky way to prevent bad from happening.

You might respond that choice schools need to comply with the state’s vision of a good education if they want state funding.  So, the state only pays for its own vision of a good education but you have to pay extra if you want to pursue something else.  This is roughly comparable to the status of Dhimmis (non-Muslims in an Islamic state) who are allowed to practice a different religion as long as they pay an extra tax.  Doesn’t feel compatible with a free society, does it?

Besides the oft-repeated claim that state funding requires accountability to the state is an obviously shallow and false political slogan rather than a well-considered policy view.  Most state funded programs require no formal accountability to the state and instead rely primarily on the self-interest of the recipients to use the funds wisely.  For example, the largest domestic program, social security, is designed to prevent seniors from lacking basic resources for housing, food, or clothing.  But we don’t demand that seniors account for the use of their social security checks.  They could blow it at the casino if they want.  We’re just counting on the fact that most would have the good sense to make sure that their basic needs are covered first.

Even in the area of education most government programs require no formal accountability.  Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and the Daycare Tuition Tax Credit do not require state testing for people using those funds.  We just trust that the public purpose of subsidizing education will be served by people pursuing their own interests.  Anyone who declares that state funding requires state accountability obviously hasn’t thought about this for more than 10 seconds.

If choice schools don’t have to take state tests, why should traditional public schools?  Every education provider should decide for itself what its goals are, develop its own standards, curriculum, and pedagogy, and decide how best to assess its progress.  Traditional public schools are agencies of the state, so the state can and should decide the standards, curriculum, and method of assessment for those schools.  The state could devolve those decisions to individual school districts or schools.  But private schools are not agencies of the state.  They have their own visions of a good education and should develop standards, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessments as they think best.

Don’t parents need state testing requirements for consumer protection and to get information to make intelligent choices?  Most markets generate consumer information without government mandates for them to do so.  For example, I have more information than you can imagine to pick a hotel or restaurant through Trip Advisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, etc… and other market sources of information about education are already springing up as choice expands without government mandates.  But if you still feel the need to require testing, why not just require choice schools to take any one of a large number of standardized tests?  At least that way we place fewer restrictions on the curriculum schools could pursue.

While I would prefer no testing requirements on choice schools, I understand and have defended the need for compromises to pass choice programs.  But let’s not confuse a compromise with the ideal.  Testing requirements are a concession that should only be granted if necessary to expand choice.  And a requirement that choice schools take any one of a long list of standardized tests is much more desirable than requiring the state test.  Choice supporters in Indiana and Louisiana should be proud that they were recently able to enact state-wide programs, even though those programs required all choice schools to take the state test.  But now maybe those supporters should start a new push to remove or relax those requirements.

-Jay P. Greene

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College