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Commentary: End the High-Stakes Testing Sham

(Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was published by U.S. News & World Report on September 15.)


By Daniel Koretz, Opinion Contributor

Fall is here, and kids are back in school. If you are a parent, you know what this means: testing, testing and more testing. Not just end-of-the-year tests used for accountability, but tests all year long to "prepare" for them. And time spent taking tests is just the tip of the iceberg: In many schools, preparation for these tests eats up far more time than testing does. In fact, in some schools, test prep is the curriculum.

This has been the way American schools have been run for years. We’ve been promised that this boring and stressful regimen will improve schools, lead kids to learn more and close the gap between low-achieving and high-achieving students.

It hasn’t. This approach has been a failure. It has produced only limited improvements, and these are far outweighed by the damage it has done.

How can this be, when many districts and states around the nation have been reporting rapid, often huge, gains in scores? Simple: Many of the reported gains are badly inflated, far larger than actual improvements in students’ learning. The National Assessment of Educational Progress – our most trustworthy indicator of trends – has shown no substantial improvements in reading for many years, even though reading and math have been the main focus of high-stakes testing. Things look a little brighter in math, where high-stakes testing has contributed to substantial gains in elementary-school achievement. However, part of this reflects instructional time pilfered from other subjects, and the gains wither away by the time kids leave school. High-stakes testing hasn't helped narrow the gaps between minority and nonminority students, and the achievement gap between rich and poor has been steadily widening.

This test prep doesn’t just produce fraudulent gains in scores that mislead students, parents and the public. It cheats students by eating up valuable time that should be devoted to real instruction. And it has undermined the ideal of good instruction. Increasingly, new teachers have been taught explicitly that the bad test prep that produces bogus score gains is "good" instruction, and not having seen anything better, many believe it.

It is troubling that none of what I have described is news. We have been accumulating hard evidence of bad test prep and score inflation for nearly 30 years. However, score inflation has allowed many who have control over the nation’s schools to claim that high-stakes testing really was making things better, and they simply turned a blind eye to the harms it was doing. And educators on the front lines have had no choice but to go along with this.

It’s time to stop pretending. To make schools better, we need an accountability system that works, and this one hasn’t. Doing it right will be much harder than simply demanding higher test scores, and it won’t generate improvements as fast as the sham gains that we have seen in recent years.

We need to start by asking what really matters, and we need to make those things count. That includes not only students’ achievement in easily tested subjects, but their achievement in other subjects, teachers’ instructional practices and school climate. To prepare kids for tests, we should be teaching them the underlying skills and knowledge the tests are intended to measure, not wasting time by prepping them for details of the particular test they will take.

We need to rely on professional judgment as well as objective measures, as some higher-performing countries do. We’ll have to retrain many teachers who have been told that bad test prep constitutes good instruction. And we will need to monitor how teachers are raising scores.

Our kids, parents and the public deserve no less.

Daniel Koretz, author of “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better," recently released by the University of Chicago Press, is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and has studied the effects of high-stakes testing for 30 years. He is a member of the National Academy of Education and a fellow of the American Educational Research Association.

Source:  U.S. News & World Report

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