Some Facts About the Student Testing Wars

Published January 31, 2013

Teachers in Washington have raised a national uproar by refusing to administer state tests to their students. In Texas, home of high-stakes testing, the House recently zeroed out funds for the state’s battery of tests. It was a largely symbolic move, legislators said, but it reflects the increasing pressure from parents and teachers agitating for a complete end to government-mandated tests.

Most people recognize as common sense what research has resoundingly proven: A simple standardized test gives the public accurate information about whether their tax dollars produce results. Why fund schools if children do not learn in them? But normal folks also worry that, rather than improving student learning (which research shows tests also do), an obsession with tests actually detracts from learning.

Whether tests are proving helpful varies from school to school. Here are a few important things for parents, taxpayers, and legislators to consider when thinking about student testing.

“Teaching to the test” is not necessary. Principals at top public schools, such as Florian Hild of Colorado’s Ridgeview Classical Schools, tell me there are two ways to get students to score high. The first is to focus obsessively on tests and test prep, which is what teachers mean when they say tests take over a school, because the actual tests usually occupy at most a few days of each school year. The second is to expect a lot from students—Ridgeview says seventh graders must be able to read Shakespeare before graduating to eighth grade—and systematically teach them tough material.

As a public school, Ridgeview must accept all students who apply and hold lotteries when there are more applicants than spaces, so it’s not just skimming the best students. Ridgeview is just doing a great job of teaching those who walk through its doors.

“We don’t worry about the state tests and the Colorado state standards or the Common Core standards,” Hild told me. “We worry about the integrity of our curriculum and the implementation of a serious classical education.”

It’s also important to know what the research says. Over ten years, researcher Richard Phelps reviewed thousands of standardized testing studies and found they increase student motivation and learning, help students learn faster, are accurate measures of what kids know, and accurately predict success at work. Overall, research strongly supports the value of standardized tests.

Why, then, do many parents and teachers believe, as protesting Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian wrote recently, that standardized tests are inaccurate and narrow? “[T]here were no test questions on whether I could play piano, coach my little sister in pitching, or identify a problem in my community that needed action and write a letter to the editor about it,” he complained.

But portfolios and activities are time-consuming, nonacademic, and subjective. What’s more, we don’t need them: Tests offer better information, faster, and at far less expense. Results on a simple verbal test are linked with how well a child can communicate, read and understand information, perform at work, and other crucial nonacademic abilities.

Many teachers don’t know this because teachers colleges purvey the falsehood that standardized tests at best have no impact on students and at worst hurt them. This fits teachers’ own fears about being judged by student results, so it’s easy for them to accept. But it’s false. And spreading untruths damages kids by preventing schools from employing a fast, economical, and accurate motivator and diagnostic tool.

Some states may overdo it by requiring dozens of tests, and that’s something that requires reform. But ditching tests entirely would be a disservice to both kids and taxpayers.