According to a Gallup poll last fall, one in eight teachers thinks that the worst thing about the Common Core is testing. On the surface, that’s hardly newsworthy. We know states are changing their tests to align to the new standards, and those changes have inevitably bred uncertainty, anxiety and even hostility, especially when results could carry high stakes someday. But educators surveyed didn’t say they were upset that the tests were changing, or that there could be consequences tied to the results. Rather, they were upset that the tests exist. Specifically, 12 percent of U.S. public school teachers “don’t believe in standardized testing.” Much like the debate over global warming, these non-believers refuse to validate an unassailable fact: Standardized testing does have positive—and predictive—value in education and in life, just as the Earth is, indeed, getting warmer.
More specifically, this righteous conviction—“I don’t believe in testing”—is at odds with most policy analysis. Regardless of political or ideological bent, most will admit that NCLB got one thing right: exposing achievement gaps through the disaggregation of student data. Where did that data come from? Standardized tests. Instead of ignoring longstanding disparities in schooling, NCLB’s testing regimen forced states and districts to quantify them, examine them, and most importantly, try to improve them. It gave policymakers, administrators, and educators a common language to talk about student achievement and progress, and evaluate what was working based on evidence, not perception. Sure, standardized testing needed to be refined over the last decade to enhance quality and reduce unintended consequences—and could still use upgrades and be open to further innovation. But the value of standardized testing in terms of better understanding and improving a public education system as vast and fragmented as ours is undeniable, right?
Well, most people aren’t policy analysts. And today, growing segments of the education sector—not just teachers, but also their unions, lawmakers, parents, and prominent researchers and advocacy groups—seem to be forgetting (or willfully ignoring) the value of statewide standardized testing. Every week there is another proposal for “new accountability” or a plan to stop “over-testing” students. Go beyond the boisterous press releases or slick websites, though, and these plans are feeding on a far more negative undercurrent: NCLB’s requirement for statewide annual standardized tests for all kids is harmful and wrong. And that undercurrent has grown stronger in recent weeks as reports have surfaced that the new chairman of the Senate education committee, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), seems ready to introduce a bill to reauthorize NCLB that would eliminate the annual testing requirement in grades 3-8.
Now, it’s one thing to dislike standardized testing or point out its flaws. It’s an entirely different matter to refuse to believe in it, to claim that it provides no information of any value. And with teachers, parents, advocates and policymakers on both sides of the aisle losing faith in statewide annual standardized testing—refusing to see these measurements of teaching and student learning as anything but unreliable, worthless or biased—education reform is coming to a crossroads. One path is dominated by these non-believers. On it, “subjective perception and experience become the sole arbiter of truth,” as my colleague Sara Mead wrote, and “we are left with the…forces of emotion, sentiment and affinity to guide our judgments and decisions.”
If this is the only way forward, education reform is imperiled. Not because Democrats are cannibalizing one another, or because the Tea Party is holding the Republican party hostage. But because when objective, common measures of students’ learning—like standardized tests—are only to be mistrusted, our ability to work out our differences to set education policy based on research and evidence, implement programs effectively, and make judgments in the best interests of all kids is lost. “I don’t believe you. That’s not what my experience tells me is true.” Compromise becomes harder, gridlock and discord more permanent.
So in what might be a lonely fool’s errand, I’m going to attempt to find—and argue for—another path. A path that may not blindingly believe in statewide standardized testing, but at least recognizes its value in measuring school, educator and student learning in ways that inform individual, collective, and comparative judgments about performance and progress. It may not be popular or politically expedient, but annual, statewide standardized testing, and yes—even accountability and consequences based on that data—at least deserve a defense. Stay tuned.