Michelle Rhee is the founder and chief executive of StudentsFirst. She was the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools from 2007 to 2010.
No, tests are not fun — but they’re necessary. Stepping on the bathroom scale can be nerve-racking, but it tells us if that exercise routine is working. Going to the dentist for a checkup every six months might be unpleasant, but it lets us know if there are cavities to address. In education, tests provide an objective measurement of how students are progressing — information that’s critical to improving public schools.
But in places like Colorado, Connecticut and New York, we’re seeing a new and problematic movement within public education to convince parents to pull their children from participating in any standardized testing. They’re opting out of the exams designed to measure how well our schools are teaching our children.
This makes no sense. All parents want to know how their children are progressing and how good the teachers are in the classroom. Good educators also want an assessment of how well they are serving students, because they want kids to have the skills and knowledge to succeed.
Opt out of measuring how well our schools are serving students? What’s next: Shut down the county health department because we don’t care whether restaurants are clean? Defund the water-quality office because we don’t want to know if what’s streaming out of our kitchen faucets is safe to drink?
Tests serve many purposes: They chart progress. They identify strengths and weaknesses. They help professionals reach competency in their careers. All these measures are critical to improving public schools.
After all, the children sitting in classrooms today are going to grow up and compete for jobs with people in India and China and Europe, not just with people in the state next door. It’s our civic duty to make sure these kids are ready. And right now, we’re failing. Out of 34 developed nations, American kids rank 26th in the world in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading.
Let’s look at why some parents are opting out. The most common argument is that standardized testing takes too much classroom time away from instruction. Yes, in too many schools and in too many districts, there is an overemphasis on testing. As a parent, I understand that problem. My daughter came home from public school one day and said class was a breeze now that “the test” was over. And I thought, “Geez, what are we communicating to our kids if they think the test is the most important thing — and once it’s over, learning ends?”
Those test-crazed districts need to be reeled in. But a new study by Teach Plus, an organization that advocates for students in urban schools, found that on average, in grades three and seven, just 1.7 percent of classroom time is devoted to preparing for and taking standardized tests. That’s not outrageous at all. Most people spend a larger percentage of their waking day choosing an outfit to wear or watching TV.
It’s not inconceivable for a student to be receiving all A’s and B’s on her report card but still be stuck far behind her peers in other districts and states across the country. And without standardized testing, that child’s parents, teachers and principal would have no idea.
That leads to another argument that the opt-outers lean on: Standardized tests don’t accurately measure how students are learning, and many other indicators exist.
That’s absolutely correct. Tests are just one measure, of many, that we should consider when determining how well public schools are serving kids. Let’s gather every piece of information available, and let’s not forget that standardized tests are meant to be objective, unlike other indicators such as peer reviews.
We don’t need to opt out of standardized tests; we need better and more rigorous standardized tests in public schools. Well-built exams can tell us whether the curriculum is adequate. They can help teachers hone their skills. They can let parents know whether their child’s school is performing on par with the one down the street, or on par with schools in the next town or the neighboring state.
We also shouldn’t accept the false argument that testing restricts educators too much, stifles innovation in the classroom or takes the joy out of teaching. That line of thought assumes that the test is the be-all and end-all — and if that’s the perspective, the joy is already long gone. Teachers enter this profession because they care about kids, believe each one has the ability to succeed and want to teach far beyond minimum proficiency. The most valuable teachers are those who impart knowledge, not just information, and do so in a way that engages students and makes school interesting.
Many critics mistakenly argue that standardized tests are designed to pass judgment on students. Quite the opposite. Standardized tests are an indicator of the kind of service taxpayers are receiving — and whether schools, educators and policymakers are doing their jobs. In the United States, taxpayers spend almost $600 billion annually on public education, so it’s not unreasonable to ask what all that money is producing. In fact, it’s irresponsible not to know.
I built an organization, StudentsFirst, that believes that every education policy decision — from the federal level through states and districts — should be made based on what is best for students and to increase student achievement. No policy decision should be made based on what is best for politicians or teachers unions. We ought to view the discussion about standardized tests through that lens, considering first and foremost what is best for students.
“Okay,” the opt-out crowd replies, “what about kids who are stressed out and suffering from anxiety because of standardized tests?” You know what? Life can be stressful; it can be challenging. The alternative is to hand out trophies just for participating, give out straight A’s for fear of damaging a kid’s ego — and continue to fall further and further behind as a country. I reject that mind-set.
For me, this conversation about standardized testing should focus on how we make sure every student, in every classroom, has an excellent teacher. Instead, critics dumb down the discussion by focusing on the time spent filling in bubbles on test sheets.
Rather than encouraging parents to opt out of testing, it would be much more productive for the leaders of this distracting movement to help improve the assessments. Make the exams more rigorous and more reflective of student learning. Ultimately, students and educators need test data — opting out does a disservice to both. And it risks endangering the progress that all of our children need.
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