Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let’s Invest In Learning, Not Testing

When I read the news last week that the New York State Education Department recently signed a $32 million contract with a new test developer, I started thinking about how $32 million could be used to foster learning, particularly in low-income school districts. Let’s forget for a minute that these tests may be useless—many education experts say standardized tests are not a valid measure of a student’s knowledge or skills. Let’s say standardized tests actually provided valuable information about student learning. It seems wasteful and illogical to spend money on assessing student learning without first investing in the resources students need to learn, like the following:

* Instructional Materials

Schools in low-income districts often don’t have enough books, desks and other resources students and teachers need. Students often lack basic school supplies, such as notebooks and pencils.

* Healthy Food

Even if students have the appropriate school supplies, they will not be ready to learn if they don’t eat properly. Many students rely on the meals they receive at school. We should be offering fresh, nutritious menu options, not processed foods that are high in salt, fat and chemical preservatives.

* Professional Development

About half of new teachers leave the professional after five years. Many new teachers feel overwhelmed and underprepared. Perhaps innovative, valuable professional development workshops would embolden new teachers.

* Parent Involvement

It’s clear that parent involvement has a positive impact on student achievement. We need to make it easier for parents to be involved, despite language barriers, time constraints and transportation issues. I recently met a teacher whose school organizes home visits for parent-teacher conferences. Some schools and community organizations are making an effort to provide translators so teachers can communicate with parents who don’t speak English.

Sadly, all of these overlooked areas will continue to languish until policymakers acknowledge the real weaknesses in our education system. I don’t think the solution is better tests.


  1. When I taught school, back in the dark ages, I tried to give a test every week. Some of them were short quizes; some were unit tests. How can you teach without regular testing. Every teacher I know uses tests to assess learning. Multiple choice and true-false are used to assess things that can be assessed with objective answers efficiently, so that the grader's precious time can focus on more open ended answers when those are appropriate. If the test doesn't assess what the student knows, testing is not the problem, the test is flawed. It is, as the testing industry says, an invalid test.

    Standardized tests, properly constructed and properly used, are an invaluable aid to teachers, and writing a properly constructed test requires tremendous effort. Why, then, would we want thousands of teachers to draft individual tests all over the country each year, all to test the very same skills? Surely, competent testing and curriculum experts can do a better job.

    To some extent, I fear that the rebellion against standardized testing arises from the fear that politicians, pundits, parents, and others will misuse the results of those tests to blame teachers for the news that the testing results bring. And so, instead of working really hard to use testing results appropriately, we seek to devalue tests and testing results. There are lots of children who arrive at their public schools totally unprepared to learn, and who then fail to make sufficient progress to arrive at a modest level of literacy. Let us be frank to admit that many interest groups would prefer to banish that inconvenient truth by banishing or diminishing testing. When the testing numbers are unbearably bad, we say, well, testing doesn't really tell us what they know?

    My view is that we need to continue high quality standardized testing, used primarily so that educational professionals can monitor student progress and respond appropriately. Instead of driving out testing, we need to drive out misuse of testing as a device to demean teachers and public education.

  2. Thank you for your insightful comments. You make some excellent points. I think if schools are going to administer standardized tests, the purpose should be to help them identify areas where a student might (possibly) need extra help. I don't think they should be used for class placement or teacher evaluations.