More Required Tests Won't Solve Education Problems
March 24, 2006
Opinion By BETTY J. STERNBERG
Full testing requirements of the federal
No Child Left Behind Act have begun. Nationwide, approximately 26
million students in grades 3-8 and one high school grade will be
tested this year. Roughly 1.3 billion test pages - 5.8 billion test
items - will be graded by a handful of companies.
In Connecticut this month, more than
300,000 students are wrestling with about 12.6 million test pages
and roughly 63 million questions.
What will this massive testing tell us that we don't already know?
In general, wealthier students do better
than poorer students, non-minority students do better than minority
students, students without disabilities do better than students
with disabilities, and there are significant gaps among urban, suburban
and rural students.
We need to reform our system to incorporate
accountability and provide to all children programs that we know,
based on research, will diminish these gaps.
Such a system uses a reasonable number
of the standardized tests required by NCLB and incorporates the
use of common formative tests - short, focused tests given every
four to six weeks - that provide immediate feedback to teachers,
students and parents. Teachers use this feedback to customize instruction
for each child.
Considerable research shows that formative
tests raise the achievement of all students, but are particularly
effective in raising the achievement of lower-performing students.
There is no such evidence regarding the standardized annual tests
required under NCLB.
A robust accountability system would
allow meaningful assessment - more open-ended questions that require
critical thinking and articulate response - compared with multiple-choice
tests that are easier, faster and cheaper to score, but don't tell
us nearly enough about our students.
Assessment is useful only if what we
test is important and challenging. In Connecticut, to meet the additional
NCLB testing requirements and add grades 3, 5 and 7 to grades 4,
6, 8 and 10 that we already assess, the U.S. Department of Education
offered two ways to save money. One was to give only multiple-choice
tests in grades 3, 5 and 7. The other was to drop writing as the
third area to be tested.
These suggestions would force us to
"dumb down" our tests. Tests that have severe consequences
like those required by NCLB drive what is taught (the content) and
how it is taught (instruction). So dumbing down our tests would
result in dumbing down what and how we teach.
The annual testing of every student
in seven grades presents an unprecedented crisis in the making.
Testing-company insiders admit that they are begging for qualified
workers. Federal officials did not ask whether testing companies
have the resources to generate accurate results for 26 million students
in a few months' time.
I predicted such problems in 2004.
A recent report, "Margins of Error: The Education Testing Industry
in the No Child Left Behind Era," published by Education Sector
Reports confirms that they occurred. "The mounting scoring
errors and reporting delays that have resulted from the many challenges
confronting the testing industry and state testing agencies as they
struggle to respond to NCLB's testing mandates," this report
states, "have tarnished NCLB's testing-based system of school
accountability." The recent stories about misreporting the
scores of 4,000 students who took the SAT in October 2005 suggest
widespread problems even in established testing programs.
Connecticut, too, has been affected
by these problems. There were delays in reporting Connecticut Mastery
Test Scores two years ago with CTB/McGraw Hill and, recently, incorrect
reporting of 355 scores (and failure to report 12) on the Connecticut
Academic Performance Test by Harcourt Assessment Inc. How many more
problems will Connecticut and other states experience due to a small
number of testing companies overwhelmed by NCLB requirements?
Less, but better testing - testing
that works to improve student achievement, not just record it -
would allow us to focus on closing the unacceptably large differences
in skills among subgroups of children.
NCLB, with its heavy emphasis on academic
achievement measured by annual tests alone, will have our nation's
children meeting minimal targets and busily answering those 5.8
billion multiple-choice questions.
This law does little to create an academically
astute, responsible, caring, compassionate and wise citizenry.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at