FEW PEOPLE like to take tests. But tests play a critical role in determining what students know and what they still need to learn. They’re important also for measuring how well teachers are doing and helping them to improve. There is a legitimate debate to be had over how much testing is appropriate and how to make it effective, but there’s a danger that the anti-testing backlash will go too far.
Testing became embedded in education reform a decade ago, when Congress insisted that states annually test students in math and reading as a condition of federal education aid. No Child Left Behind aimed to put a stop to the pernicious ability of schools to mask the failure of some students, often poor and minority, behind their more successful peers.
There can be no going back on that effort, but there can be adjustments and improvements. Complaints from parents and teachers about too many diagnostic tests or too much instructional time lost to mindless test prep have reached a crescendo. No less a reformer than Michelle A. Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor, recently acknowledged that many schools overemphasize testing. “It’s become an end-all instead of a means to an end,” she said at an education forum in Minnesota. But the solution is not to get rid of all tests.
Virginia seems poised to make some sensible changes: slightly scaling back the number of Standards of Learning tests in grades 3 through 8, improving the tests to encourage a sharper focus on problem-solving and critical thinking, and mandating further evaluation of the tests. D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has appointed a task force to study testing and make recommendations. Other jurisdictions should follow these leads.
The introduction of the Common Core State Standards, with their emphasis on critical thinking and more useful assessments, hopefully will result in better synergy between what’s taught and how it is tested. Research shows that students who do best on tests are not those who have been “taught to the test” but those who have had the benefit of effective teachers and a robust curriculum.