For more than a decade, school standardized tests have been the magic keys that were supposed to unlock the door to a promised realm of American students able to read and do sums as well as their counterparts in Asia and Europe.
A generation of U.S. education reformers has assured us that if we would just rely mostly on test scores and other hard data to guide decisions, then all manner of good results would ensue. Foundations gave millions of dollars to encourage it. The Obama administration embraced the cause, lest it stand accused of short-changing kids.
It was always a fairy tale. Tests are necessary, of course, but the mania for them has become self-defeating. They don’t account for the vast differences in children’s social, economic and family backgrounds. Good teachers give up on proven classroom techniques and instead “teach to the test.”
Now, finally, somebody with standing is getting attention for denouncing the madness.
The truth-teller is one of our own from the Washington region, Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua P. Starr. He has only been here for a year and a half, but he arrived with an impressive résumé and is emerging as a credible national voice urging a more reasoned and deliberate path to educational progress.
Speaking at a Washington Post Live event Monday, Starr called for a three-year, nationwide moratorium on state standardized tests. He also said the country should “stop the insanity” of evaluating teachers according to student test scores. He contended that method is demonstrably flawed.
“I think it’s a courageous statement. We haven’t had a superintendent of a large, major school district come out in this way,” said Pedro Noguera, a prominent education professor at New York University.
It might sound crazy at first to cancel three years of standardized tests. How would we know whether our children are learning what they’re supposed to?
Nevertheless, in an unmistakable sign that Starr’s message was in fact long overdue, he instantly attracted support from other top school administrators.
Fairfax School Superintendent Jack Dale, in an e-mail to me, called the moratorium “a very solid suggestion.” The head of the American Association of School Administrators, Daniel A. Domenech, also expressed approval.
The explanation is that it’s simply the wrong moment now for schools in many states to rely heavily on standardized tests. That’s because almost all states are in the process of rewriting their curricula to meet new, nationally based, “common core” standards for what children need to know.
New standardized tests based on the common core haven’t yet been introduced. So tests available today were designed to assess students’ learning under standards that are being phased out.
“Why continue to organize around a test that’s going away in a couple of years? The moratorium idea is: If the common core is what’s really important, then let’s just stop doing the other things,” Starr said in an interview.
Making matters worse, the federal government is pushing states to evaluate teachers based partly on existing standardized tests. If you were a teacher, how would you like to be judged according to exams unrelated to new stuff you’re supposed to be teaching?
“This is common sense. If you’re going to test kids, then they need to be taught the material,” Noguera said.
Finally, the new curricula and tests are arriving at a time when tight budgets mean there is less money than ever to train teachers. Monthly surveys by the school administrators association shows that the No. 1 area to be cut in the past four years has been professional development.
Despite Starr’s advocacy, don’t expect any letup in the pressure to test. The educators and experts whom I interviewed predicted the Education Department and state superintendents would stick to their plans. They’re paralyzed by fear of criticism for supposedly not pushing schools to do their best.
Starr and his supporters were quick to say they have no interest in giving up on improving students’ achievement. They recognize that standardized exams help serve that goal. They applaud Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for making education reform a priority.
“This is not about ducking accountability,” Starr said. “I do believe that President Obama, Arne Duncan and our state superintendent have the right intent. They see the economic imperative. They see the moral imperative.”
But, he continued, “This is really complex. We need to pause and take a breath.”
Given the multiple burdens being loaded on teachers’ shoulders, it seems like an easy call to allow a temporary respite. Especially when the alternative is giving outdated tests.
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.