Ditch Testing (Part 5): Testing Has Not Improved Education Despite all the Costs
Ditch Testing (Part 5): Testing Has Not Improved Education
The evidence is clear. Test-score cheating is not isolated to Atlanta, Baltimore, and a few other schools, as testing proponents tend to suggest. It is not a problem that can be fixed with technical measures such as tightened security. It may be human nature but it is the high and unreasonable pressure of high-stakes standardized testing that leads to corruption. Thus, we cannot minimize the problem, trivialize potential solutions, or blame a few educators who have been caught. The Atlanta scandal should serve as a wake-up call to all of us, especially to those who continue to promote testing as a necessary and effective way to improve education.
Secretary Arne Duncan has criticized NCLB for its damages. In a recent commentary, he writes:
As it currently exists, NCLB is creating a slow-motion educational train wreck for children, parents and teachers. Under the law, an overwhelming number of schools in the country may soon be labeled as “failing,” eventually triggering impractical and ineffective sanctions.
To avoid these sanctions, many states have lowered academic standards instead of making them more rigorous. The law also makes no distinction between a high-performing school with one or two subgroups underperforming and a low-performing school where everyone is struggling. As a result, states and districts are spending billions of dollars each year on one-size-fits-all mandates dictated from Washington rather than on locally tailored solutions that effectively reach the students most at risk and close achievement gaps.
But he fails to recognize the crux of all problems caused by NCLB is high-stakes testing. Unless high-stakes standardized testing in a few limited subjects is abandoned, America education will continue to be ruined by the so-called reformers. In fact, Arne Duncan’s proposal to “reward excellence” and push to directly connect teacher and principal evaluation and their income will only increase the stakes in testing, and will likely provide more incentives for cheating. Worse yet, depending on the actual implementation, we may see high performing schools participate in cheating in the future because they now have a reason to want to score well to be rewarded for “being excellent while before they only have to pass to avoid failure, which their students already do.
Although I have primarily been discussing cheating in this series of posts, cheating is only a small problem of high-stakes testing and my main purpose is to argue that we have to abandon it. So I end this series with a summary of the broader issues of high stakes testing, which basically amounts to: its costs are too high and the benefits too little.
Costs of High-stakes Testing
There is no exact figure of the cost of high-stakes testing required by NCLB. In 2003, the General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated that the cost of creating, administering, and scoring the required reading and math tests would be between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion depending on test formats over the seven-year period (2002-2008). A 2009 GAO report says that since 2002, the federal Department of Education has provided $400 million every year to states for implementing NCLB assessments—which amounts to $4 billion over 10 years. But that’s just the federal portion for NCLB required tests. The actual cost is much higher. Lawrence A. Baines and Gregory Kent Stanley estimated, based on a report of the Center on Education Policy (CEP), that “The annual cost of high-stakes testing rivals the gross national products of some small countries, somewhere between $20 and $50 billion, or 5.5–14 percent of every dollar spent for public schools.”With the call for increased security measures, the cost will only rise and burden increased for schools and educators.
These billions of dollars have also led to other costs that cannot be measured. They have been used to direct resources in schools to preparing for tests and managing reporting, for example. This means schools have lost opportunities to consider other forms of activities that may be more beneficial to their students.
They have also redirected the nation’s attention to testing instead of other forms of innovative solutions that may address the nation’s education challenges. For example, over the last decade, the advancement of technology has been more than dramatic, offering new possibilities for improving learning. But the focus on testing has exhausted the funds, political assets, time, and energy for exploiting these new possibilities.
But the most serious and well-documented costs are the loss of opportunities for students to have access to a broad range of educational experiences as well as the opportunity to develop the ability and skills that truly matter in the 21st century such creativity and global competence. As I wrote in a previous part of this series:
Many schools in the U.S. have turned into test preparation institutions. They only teach what is on the high-stakes tests. A study by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) published in 2007 found that five years after the implementation of NCLB, over 60% of school districts reported that they have increased instructional time for math and English language arts, while 44% reported that they have reduced time for other subjects or activities such as social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch and or recess. The study also found that most school districts have narrowed their English language arts and math curricula to what is covered on the state tests. The study found that 84% of districts reported that they have changed their curriculum “somewhat” or “to a great extent” to put greater emphasis on tested content in elementary level reading; 79% in middle school, and 76% in high school. A similar pattern was found in math: 81% of districts have changed their curriculum at the elementary and middle school level to emphasize tested content and skills, and 78% in high school math. Classroom instruction has also been transformed into test preparation. Linda Valli and her colleagues found that since the implementation of NCLB, teachers have lost curriculum and pedagogical autonomy to standards and testing. “Teachers felt compelled to match closely what they taught to what would be tested and worried about how well aligned the district curriculum was with state test’s content, language, and format” (Valli & Buese, 2007, p. 531). A more recent study by CEP of the impact of federal and state accountability polices on curriculum and instruction in three states, Rhode Island, Illinois, and Washington, found classroom instruction to be focused on test preparation and that teachers generally focus their instruction on test-related content (Srikantaiah & Kober, 2009).
The costs to society have been tremendous in the forms of attitudes toward public education and educators, perception of the value of education, and understanding of what constitutes high-quality education. The high-stakes standardized testing-driven policies have instilled a simplistic view of education in the public, (mis)leading them to believe that simple indicators such as whether making AYP or a letter grade assigned by the state based on test scores are meaningful measures of the quality of education a school provides, or a single score on standardized tests indicate whether their children are doing well educationally.
Another societal cost, I fear, is that a decade of NCLB style test-driven accountability could have created a generation of teachers and leaders who are willing to comply with standardized testing, accept the idea that standards and testing are necessary—those who don’t have been discouraged from entering the profession or decided to leave. Thus, if and when standardized tests are abandoned, we may not have the professionals we need to teach creatively.
Benefits of high-stakes testing
With such huge costs, what are the gains? This is the most recent finding by a panel of the nation’s leading experts commissioned by the National Research Council:
Despite being used for several decades, test-based incentives have not consistently generated positive effects on student achievement…?School-level incentives — like those of No Child Left Behind — produce some of the larger effects among the programs studied, but the gains are concentrated in elementary grade mathematics and are small in comparison with the improvements the nation hopes to achieve, the report says. Evidence also suggests that high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in many states, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing student achievement.