One can easily surmise that the role of standardized testing — especially in using longitudinal test score growth data in evaluating teacher performance — is increasingly the biggest fault line between reformers and traditionalists. For some traditionalists, most-notably Diane Ravitch, testing (especially so-called high stakes testing used for accountability purposes) is in their minds the “most damaging things happening today”. [Editor's Note: It is even at the heart of the opposition among some hardcore traditionalists and movement conservatives to the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, which will involve phasing in new assessments developed by two coalitions of states and ACT.] As both a teacher and a reformer, I have to admit that I’m baffled by the belief because it doesn’t bear out to be true either objectively or in my own experience.
I”ll start with my experience. I taught in a school district that was very reform-minded. We were regularly evaluated by principals and half of our evaluation was based on student performance from as much as five standardized assessments a year for each subject. In fact, the district’s former superintendent, F. Mike Miles (now chief executive of the Dallas Independent School District) even wrote a report for the Fordham Institute on the evaluation system used. Certainly I have issues with the district’s evaluation system, and I’ve written about them elsewhere. But the amount of testing done every year was, in my view, a good thing. As teachers, we knew where we stood in terms of performance, and so did our students.
Again, this is my experience. But what surprises me most about the opposition among traditionalists to testing (and the backlash against testing by some parents and others) is that there is little research to back up their arguments. Folks such as Gary Rubinstein say that they don’t “put a lot of stake into standardized tests“. But what evidence do they offer for this other than their intuition and personal experiences?
Take a look at the research. The well-known study by Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Harvard and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University, found that increased standardized test scores correlated with better life outcomes. The Scholastic Aptitude Test has been a powerful predictor of students’ first-year college grade point average, correlating about as well as high-school GPA, which is pretty impressive in my view. There’s also strong evidence that the SAT is a good predictor of a student’s likelihood of graduating college. Standardized tests aren’t perfect metrics, but they are useful ones. [Editor's Note: There's also the decades of evidence that shows that student test score growth data over time indicates how well or poorly teachers are doing in improving student achievement, as well as revealing that, in general, a teacher is no more successful in improving student achievement after 25 years of teaching than an instructor working for four years, according to a report by Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen of the Center for Reinventing Public Education.]
Traditionalists sometimes act as if preparing for a standardized test is a useless activity. Not so. Whether you like it or not, if you want to enter a profession, you will have to be successful at taking some form of standardized test. As a teacher, I had to pass a test to become certified as a teacher in Colorado; I’m now in law school and had to take the LSAT and will have to take the bar. Sure, there’s an argument that test prep has gone too far – and I would guess that that’s true in some schools and districts –but there should also be an acknowledgement that the ability to take a test has many real-world uses. [Editor's Note: Testing is also critical in helping students achieve mastery in their subjects by helping students learn from and improve on their mistakes, as well as helps teachers and schools diagnose and address learning issues. If anything, students actually benefit from taking more tests than fewer of them, especially in online and blended learning environments in which more of our children will be learning.]
As Paul Bruno has pointed out, it is bizarre that many teachers are so opposed to testing when in fact they give quizzes and tests that are hold as many stakes for their students as standardized tests administered by states and districts do for children and teachers alike. There’s no fundamental difference between classroom tests and standardized tests. So why do traditionalists treat them that way? American Federations of Teachers’ Chicago local president Karen Lewis declared a few months ago in her opposition to standardized testing that “My students aren’t standardized!” That got some applause and head nods, but does that really make sense? When she was a teacher, did she not give all students the same tests? Every teacher gives their students the same tests regardless of differences in ability. That is standardized testing in a nutshell. This is also true if you’re a ninth-grade algebra teacher and you come together with your colleagues to design a test given to all of your ninth-grade algebra students, and used the data to judge your performances as instructors as well as find areas of your weaknesses and that of your students.
Traditionalists would find no problem with teachers coming together to do this on their own. [Editor's Note: In fact, in some states, such tests account for a portion of teacher evaluations.]. I see standardized tests as a scaling of what we do in classrooms every day.
Yes, we need to be careful with incentives when linking pay to test scores, we need to make sure tests are fair and accurate, we need to avoid narrowing the curriculum, and we need to ensure that teachers have a part in designing the tests (which my old district did to its credit). Of course there’s a lot of work still to be done on these matters, but it is work that can be done. These are issues that can be solved, not ones that warrant trashing high-stakes, standardized tests altogether.