President's perspective

Less testing, more teaching

Michael Mulgrew - 155 x 230

The reliance on ever more standardized tests to determine everything from graduation requirements to teacher tenure to school closings is the holy grail of the so-called education “reform” movement, but testing does not improve education. In fact, testing harms education in many ways.

Bubble tests do not adequately measure student learning, let alone critical thinking. Forcing teachers to teach to the test distorts instruction and impoverishes the curriculum. And every dollar and every hour spent on testing and test prep is a dollar and an hour not spent on educating children.

Any educator could tell you this — it is common sense — but it is not educators who are driving education policy in our city, state or nation.

But now there is a growing mountain of data and research (something the “reformers” profess to love) that confirms the experience of teachers. A blue-ribbon panel from the National Academies of Science published a 10-year study in May that shows that standardized tests did not improve educational outcomes. Leading educational experts like Linda Darling-Hammond have long warned that the obsession with testing is dangerous and detrimental.

Meanwhile, none of the countries with the best educational systems in the world rely on extensive testing. Finland, for instance, eliminated all standardized tests except one in the 12th grade when it overhauled its education system 40 years ago. It now ranks second in science, third in reading and sixth in math in international rankings of student knowledge.

“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” says Finish education official Pasi Sahlberg (a former math and physics teacher, not a hedge fund manager or a lawyer).

While countries like Finland have created more space for high-quality learning, here in the United States we seem hell-bent on moving in the opposite direction. In Durham, N.H., a beloved middle school with an innovative curriculum — and a genre reading and writing project, a hands-on robotics program, re-enactments of the Boston Massacre, and more — has long produced successful high school students. But it is now deemed “failing” by No Child Left Behind standards and test prep has moved in to change the academic culture and crowd out the textbook-free curriculum that the principal says was better than any pre-packaged curriculum.

The latest evidence that testing is bad for teaching and learning comes from the testing-obsession capital of the United States, our own New York City Department of Education. This year’s high school progress reports, released in October, reveal that while graduation rates are up, college readiness is low. Only one in five city high school graduates is ready for college-level work. None other than the DOE’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, made the connection between the increased focus on testing and the poor preparedness of students for college.

“The real solution is not to play around with the cut scores,” he told The New York Times on Oct. 23. “It’s to give kids more challenging, rich and authentic work.”

The following day, he told the Times, “If I’m a teacher, I’m going to look closely at what the exam is measuring and key my curriculum and my work to passing that exam. That is the reality of what high-stakes exams are designed to do.”

There you have it.

And yet, shockingly, none of this has resulted in any change of course for the “reformers,” or for the educational officials who dance to the tune of their agenda. DOE school progress reports — which drive the city’s decisions on school closures — continue to rely mostly on standardized tests. Calls for tying teachers’ evaluations, tenure and their very jobs to student test scores continue unabated. And as if to prove that irony really is dead, the State Education Department announced its plan for mandatory testing of kindergartners just two days before the high school progress reports, underscoring the futility of testing, were released.

The relentless march onward of the testing obsession represents the complete triumph of ideology over evidence. It seems that no matter how much empirical data there is refuting the pet ideas of the “reformers” — whether it’s the value of merit pay or the unimportance of poverty in explaining educational outcomes or the need for more punitive evaluation tools — they just keep repeating them over and over and, sadly, convincing education officials and legislators all over the country to swallow them wholesale.

If parents want to know how their children are doing in school, whether they are reading at grade level or need extra help in math, they can ask their teachers. We don’t need to spend millions of dollars on a test.

And if we want kids to learn more, we should stop diverting countless hours and endless resources to high-stakes tests that distort the curriculum and siphon off funds badly needed for smaller class sizes, books and after-school programs and supports.

The evidence is in: testing isn’t teaching.

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