More Required Tests Won't Solve Education Problems
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? Nothing.
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.
Betty J. Sternberg is the state commissioner of education.
Betty J. Sternberg
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES