How to Get Out from under Standardized Testing
A Guide for Parents
I have a Princeton Review study guide in my living room right now that has this to say about the new edition of the Graduate Record Examination:
“…It’s safe to say that neither GRE—new or old—is a realistic measure of how well you’ll do in grad school, or even how intelligent you are. The GRE provides a valid assessment of only one thing: The GRE assesses how well you take the GRE.”
It would be fair to accuse the Princeton Review of cynicism for publishing something so weaselly—after all, they’re about to spend 400 pages under the assumption that the GRE is important. It would not be fair, however, to single them out, because everybody else in the American education system is doing the exact same thing as they are: teaching to the test.
How Teaching to the Test Took Over
High-stakes standardized testing in the United States was a well-intentioned idea: make all students take a single test every year, and you’ll be able to measure educational achievement without having to account for the way tests vary from classroom to classroom. You will, hypothetically, arrive at a single impartial set of data by which all students can be measured. This data would be El Dorado for educational administrators, so it’s not surprising that standardized testing became a federal mandate under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program in the early 2000’s.
Standardized tests were the only measures of achievement in No Child Left Behind, though, and if a school district tested poorly the results could be catastrophic: missed testing targets three years in a row, for instance, would force a school to provide extra instruction to its students while those students were allowed to transfer to other schools. In other words, every time a school failed to hit an arbitrary goal, it was forced to work with fewer resources, which made it harder for the school to recover. The only way for a school to get out of this death spiral, in many cases, was to focus all of its curricular efforts on nailing its test targets every year.
The type of instruction this leads to is, to put it mildly, ineffective. In an Educational Leadership article from 2001 (the dawn of the NCLB era), W. James Popham lays out a distinction between curriculum-teaching and item-teaching. Curriculum-teaching works like this: a teacher learns that a standardized test will measure her students’ ability to solve algebraic equations with two variables, and decides to teach multivariable equations this semester instead of geometry. In item-teaching, though, another teacher might look at this year’s standardized test, clone all of the multivariable equations, and drill her students on them until test day.
The first teacher’s students, obviously, are going to be better at math. They’ll know how to solve multivariable equations, while the second teacher’s students will only know how to solve one type of problem, over and over. The problem is that the second teacher’s students will score higher on the standardized test, because they’ve essentially been taking it, bit by bit, all semester. And since the standardized test is the only way to measure students, the second teacher will look better than the first one. Now imagine that the school district has just missed its test targets for the second year in a row, and it’s easy to extrapolate that the first teacher will be under a lot of pressure to change the way she teaches. This is a special case of a principle called Campbell’s Law, which the education historian Diane Ravitch sums up in a blog post.
Apply Campbell’s Law all over the country and you have American education today. Even though the last provisions of No Child Left Behind were washed away in 2015, the fundamental problems of standardized testing persist in the form of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program (which we’ve written about before). In some ways they’ve gotten worse. Education reformers around the country are quixotically focused on firing teachers when their students test poorly—in other words, when the teachers won’t teach to the test—and in the worst cases, poor standardized test scores are an excuse for closing schools in droves.
If it becomes clear that all your kids are learning is how to take a test, then they’re being shortchanged, and you have a problem. Click to tweet
So What Can You Do as a Parent?
The American education system has such a big, diffuse problem that it’s hard to tell where to start solving it. If you feel comfortable homeschooling your child, that’s an obvious solution: taking them out of traditional school means you can forget about item-teaching and standardized testing and the whole mess. If your kids are in public school, though, try to hold your school district accountable. Ask your child what they learned in school every night. Work on homework with them. If it becomes clear that all they’re learning is how to take a standardized test, then they’re being shortchanged, and you have a problem.
My advice is to bring your concerns to your child’s teachers first, but bear in mind that they’re rarely any freer than their students. Whether it’s pressure from the school district or the culture of the school in general (or their unions, teachers’ hands are often tied, even if they know it’s not helping their students. If you can, try to organize other parents and speak to the administration. If that doesn’t work, another solution is to opt out of the test entirely.
Taking your students out of standardized tests is legal under 2015 education law, according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and the secret of standardized testing is that public opinion is turning against it. Fewer and fewer colleges require SAT or ACT scores, and students are starting to walk out of tests all over the country. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing offers a guide for parents who are interested in organizing opt-outs in their school districts. Even teachers’ unions, formerly strong advocates of standardized testing, have started to come out in favor of opting out. Opting out might seem like the nuclear option for parents worried about teaching to the test, but if your local school district is unresponsive or immobile, it might be the best choice.
Whatever you choose to do, remember that you don’t need to let the educational system fail your children. There’s a growing consensus that high-stakes standardized testing is a dead end, and you can be part of it.