At the Los Angeles Education Writers Association panel, opt-out advocate Bob Schaeffer waved a stack of papers and exclaimed the average student had to take 112 standardized tests during the course of his or her K-12 education.
It was an amusing bit of theater by Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, but it was also misleading.
The edifice of opt-out fury rests on a shaky foundation, as shaky as Jesse Hagopian’s grasp of facts in a recent piece he wrote for The Progressive. Hagopian’s screed is a vintage example of the rhetoric making the rounds on the issue of testing—light on evidence, heavy on bloviation.
The link Hagopian provides for testing being concentrated among schools serving low-income students of color doesn’t provide any data supporting that assertion. It is a series of talking points from Schaeffer’s national testing center. The links throughout Hagopian’s piece show a similarly obvious slant.
No one is in favor of overtesting, but if we do away with testing altogether, we do not produce data that tells us how well these children are performing. If we do not have such data, then we do not know how to direct funding to children who need it the most.
America has an over-testing problem, yet the focus of the opt-out movement’s ire, federally mandated state testing, is misplaced.
Local school districts require more tests and these tests comprise the majority of the test-taking burden. The number of tests and how often they’re given can vary dramatically even among districts in the same state. District-level tests take up more learning time in urban districts and unfortunately, districts are not clear about what authority is requiring a test and for what purpose it will be used.
Furthermore, testing is especially heavy in high school, although much of it is optional or intended for students in special courses or programs. And as I’ve written, white, affluent high-school students are driving the opt-out movement, so there’s reason to be skeptical that they have a deep-seated opposition to testing other than issues of convenience.
In using Illinois as an example of opt-out fervor, Hagopian neglects to mention that of the 23 schools in Chicago with less than 50 percent participation in PARCC, 14 of these were high schools. It’s worth noting that PARCC was scheduled at the same time as a number of AP exams.
Nevertheless, the one annual exam both testing advocates and civil rights groups care about—the one that measures how schools are performing across the nation instead of the confusing and sometimes duplicative patchwork of district exams—bears the brunt of outrage.
Focusing on the Test that Matters
With the Common Core-aligned tests, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, we’re not only moving away from a glutted, haphazard system where the majority of tests are not aligned with college- and career-ready standards, we’re also pushing forth tests that emphasize critical thinking and more thoughtful answers, not the rote memorization Hagopian decries.
The report of the Council of Great City Schools, the same one cited by Hagopian in his article, in reference to the 112 tests students take over their careers, stated:
Historically, we have made a trade-off between higher-quality items that may require more time and lower-quality multiple-choice items that were cheaper to score and required less time. PARCC, SBAC, and other similar tests were designed to rebalance those scales toward higher quality.
Yet Hagopian and his peers balk at rebalancing those scales, streamlining what has been a confusing, onerous system for all.
About that Cost
Another common critique of testing is the expense involved. The oft-cited figure of $1.7 billion pales in comparison to the over $600 billion spent annually in public education. Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution wrote eliminating testing wouldn’t yield tremendous savings: Teacher salaries could be raised by 1 percent and student-teacher ratios could decrease by 0.1 students.
The $34 per student spent by states on federally and state-mandated tests simply isn’t very much in a system that spends about $10,000 per student. Put in the context of the NEA position, $34 per student would not buy very much early childhood education—only eight hours of preschool per student in Florida to be exact.
Testing offers a lot more bang for the buck than so many other efforts in public education. For far less than 1 percent of the hundreds of billions spent every year, we get a sense of how the system is performing.
Closing the Gap
Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor of education at the University Southern California, offers a pragmatic view of testing:
We have a huge system in this country, and we want results that are comparable across schools. But comparability in a large system requires some degree of standardization, and standardization at that level of scale requires processes that look, well, standardized and corporate.
The performance-based assessments Hagopian rhapsodizes about don’t allow for comparisons across schools or judging school quality nationwide. They’re great within schools and useful in evaluating individual student performance, but not so much in identifying achievement gaps throughout the country.
One struggles to think of another field aside from public education where being evaluated and held responsible for meeting goals is met with so much resistance, and are so reviled they’re equated to punishment when most other workers see these practices as routine.
Hagopian wrongly claims standardized testing was invented by white supremacists—a rather alarming historical inaccuracy coming from a history teacher. In fact, standardized testing was invented by the Chinese during the Han dynasty over 2,000 years ago. They were also given to American schoolchildren before the Civil War, not the 1920s, and championed by the person considered to be the father of public education, Horace Mann.
Visionaries like Mann saw testing as a means to educate effectively; administrators, legislators, and the general public turned to tests to see what children were actually learning.
Like opt-out, Hagopian’s article is driven by convenience: a convenient omission of facts or reason. It’s diversion, an act of theater to distract from the more real, pressing problem of people unwilling to know what children are learning in school. Or in too many cases, not learning.