In a recent edition of Education Week, Marc Tucker, head of the National Center on Education and the Economy, argues that annual testing and accountability is bad for low-income students and that the dozen of civil rights organizations that recently came out in support for annual testing and accountability are wrong.
More specifically, in his Education Week piece, Tucker asserts that we don’t need to annually test every child, just some children, and we don’t have to test every school every year, just some schools in some years. He goes further by adding that today’s tests don’t measure the skills employers want and need and that other countries that don’t test students every year surpass the U.S. in educating poor students.
Finally, he claims accountability based on tests forces schools to buy cheap tests and devote precious class time to test prep and also that accountability drives good teachers out of the profession, discourages smart young people from entering the profession, and diverts the best teachers away from the neediest schools.
While appealing on the surface, under scrutiny, Tucker’s arguments fall flat.
In arguing against the need for annual assessments, Tucker seems to forget America’s long and sorry history of neglecting kids at risk. Some were sent home on testing day. Some were pushed out or expelled. Some states had no standards for students with disabilities or English language learners. Worst of all, most of these students were simply invisible under the old system of publishing only average school scores.
History clearly indicates that the inevitable result of Tucker’s proposed approach will be that millions of kids will fall through the cracks.
Civil rights leaders know very well which kids they will be.
Civil rights groups know which kids’ struggles will be ignored and they know, when placement decisions are subjectively determined by adults as opposed to objective test scores and GPAs, which kids will be tracked away from college-level coursework. Civil rights leaders and, I would argue, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that merit, not adult bias, should determine who is college material (see Equal Opportunity Schools for more information on the 600,000 qualified students “missing” from AP and IB courses).
Teachers and the Test
Tucker claims that accountability based on tests encourages teachers to focus on the kids just below the proficiency level while neglecting the ones who are further ahead or further behind. Award-winning teachers all across America disagree. They celebrate the new higher standards, aligned tests and curricula that is more engaging for students.
Today, through waivers, the smarter states are measuring growth rather than proficiency, which means teachers have an incentive to help every student and can be recognized accordingly. To measure growth, however, you need annual assessments to see year-to-year gains.
The Obama administration encourages growth measurements because it is fairer to teachers and better for kids. The administration’s policy also states that teacher evaluation should be based on multiple measures, never just test scores, as some contend. The policy seeks to identify the best teachers to be leaders, help most of the others improve, and identify the few who are chronically struggling so they can get the support they need or, alternatively, leave the field.
Tucker’s argument that teachers are jumping ship falls short in several ways. In fact, teacher retention is far higher than previously reported. Today, 70 to 80 percent of teachers remain in the classroom for at least five years, according to recently released federal data and an analysis by the Center for American Progress. Two studies suggest, however, that poor working conditions and inadequate support are bigger factors in teacher attrition. Teachers frequently cite increased workload due to shrinking budgets.
Tucker’s argument that countries that don’t test students annually are doing a better job educating poor kids belies the fact that most of the countries that compare favorably in international comparisons are much smaller than the U.S. and have far fewer kids in poverty. They also have centralized education systems with more equitable funding. Furthermore, to imply that those countries are not assessment oriented is misleading; many of those countries have incredibly high-stakes tests that track low-performing students into trades as opposed to college.
Test Quality and Preparation
With respect to test quality, there is simply no basis for Tucker’s assertion that schools are being “forced” to buy cheap tests. States can buy any test they want, the cost of testing is about $34 per child per year—less than 0.5 percent of overall education spending, and the quality of tests is rapidly improving.
With regard to test prep, while good schools know that good teaching is the best preparation for testing, there should be strict limits on test preparation. Student surveys, which are useful for many other reasons, should be employed to help ensure test prep is minimal.
Here’s the bottom line: Civil rights leaders wisely understand that the growing resistance to accountability is directly related to the fact that it’s starting to work.
Accountability forces school systems to face the truth about student performance and do something about it when they fall short. Annual assessments of every child, every year are critical to making that possible.
While accountability systems can always be improved, the last thing we should do is remove protections for kids at risk.