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The Fallout from Testing


Dear Diane,

There's a streak of naivete about you that is both delightful and infuriating! The notion that we have come to a consensus on what constitutes the well-educated 8-, 12- or 18-year-old, on what body of facts and scientific truth we all agree is essential, and finally that we have a way to get at this that will not impact on narrowing or distorting the curriculum—all seem far-fetched. Politically, not to mention technically, this seems beyond our current human capacity.

Add to it that such a testing system would demonstrate that huge majorities of the students in some states are failing by these standards and it seems politically even more unlikely. Of course, that's perhaps one of the few reasons I'd like it. How about, for starters, if we agree that we do not give any test to high school students before trying it out on all state and federal legislators—as a kind of base line? We might also test trustees of universities and major corporations.

I wrote a book, "Will Standards Save Public Education," in 2000 (Beacon) in which I set out the assumptions underlying test-based standards and contrast them to an alternate set of assumptions. If you didn't read it—it might help us to see where we diverge.

Remember, what we're arguing about are mandated state-sponsored tests about intellectual truth. The information, while not high stakes re. students in your proposal, is high stakes for the intellectual and democratic assumptions upon which the nation rests. The fallout of testing is, as we both agree, not irrelevant as some test-makers argue in claiming no responsibility for the narrowing of the curriculum. But there is narrowing of many sorts, and any national system in a nation as diverse and huge as ours has serious reverberations. How would yours avoid it?

Which reminds me of what we face in NYC right now at the other end of the spectrum—not 18-years-olds but 4- and 5-year-olds. NYC has sent principals (no names because this is supposed to be super confidential) copies of practice tests which they are expected to hand out to parents who must come to school to get them. Such parents must promise to reveal nothing about the pre-tests, in exchange for being able to use the information to help prepare their children. Hush hush. One outcome available to parents who agree is a leg up on getting their kids into gifted and talented classes—open to the top 5 percent of national test-takers. (Despite our knowledge of how IQ tests—which these are—differentially impact on kids based on economics and race—NYC is proposing this as part of its drive for equity!) What happens to the information garnered from the other 95 percent?

Erikson Institute's Sam Meisels, perhaps America's most eminent expert on early childhood, has written extensively on the unreliability of early childhood testing. We know a lot—and it's all bad news. On the basis of this, Congress agreed to remove standardized testing for Head Starters. But not NYC 4-5-year-olds. If anyone reading this letter has the inclination—please write, call and holler! It's coming next to you. I wonder who, in the field of early-childhood education, they consulted? Or did they just assume that based on their experience in business, law, Wall Street, et al they knew best?

And imagine, officially involving parents in the test-prep game! I suppose they can claim that this is leveling the field! It's also—if they knew anything about norm-based testing (which these are)—further corrupting the instrument itself once we prep for it! IQ tests are based on the assumption that everyone is taking it under the same conditions as the population they were normed on.

I see national testing as another nail in the coffin of a nation prized for being creative and innovative. I know, Diane, that textbooks often establish dumb standards, too. But whatever leads you to believe that these tests won't repeat what's already in (and not in) those textbooks??? At least now some schools—and not just private ones—can ignore them or use them as mere back-up. There remains another way to get good information without dumbing education down; sampled in-depth testing (which NAEP started out doing) could be invaluable, based on interviews, performance tasks, writing samples, etc.

We could feed our adult thirst for knowledge without mandating that schools deprive kids of a taste of the real thing. I know, I know—only some kids now get that kind of education; but what's kept me going for 40-plus years is trying to spread the real thing to more and more kids. I know it's do-able; but it's getting harder and harder.



The convoluted doctrine of "narrowing the curriculum” as an argument against prioritizing math, and especially reading, has taken on (for the sake of supporting their argument) a conveniently borderline ignorant posture on the way young children learn.

Precedence must be given early on in school to these two critical disciplines, especially reading/language arts, before youngsters can get into understanding what’s going on in a science or history textbook.

It has long been accepted doctrine in elementary education that young children must FIRST learn to read before they can read to learn. It’s also not uncommon for the readability levels of many adopted science and social studies books in our schools to be above grade level. For the life of me, I cannot understand the hue and cry from certain quarters as to how kids who are not yet reading, or are unable to read at grade level, are ever going to be able to comprehend what’s in most of these challenging and vocabulary-weighted texts.

As a solution to this contrived doctrine of “narrowing of the curriculum” a number of districts have incorporated a longer school day and year. If they are unable to ‘get it’ in five to six hour days, or 180 day years, that’s okay. It’s a well known fact that some kids simply need more time to learn. Again, that’s okay. They should be afforded whatever time is necessary to get them to grade level. In the same breath, NO STUDENT SHOULD BE DEPRIVED OF A FULL RICH CURRICULUM, including art, music, physical education, health, science experiments and history projects, etc., because they are not yet “reading at grade level.” But if these kids are not able to handle much of what’s in a science or social studies texts that substantiates the need for them to be allowed more time in the learning to read domain.

While mathematics might not be as rudimentary to the every day existence of educated citizens of the world as reading/language arts, it’s a close second. Simply put, for an individual to be mathematically deficient and/or illiterate in the twenty-first century US is to doom that individual to essentially a lifetime of failure and un(der)-employment.

As for the school time spent “teaching to the test” or teaching test strategies, these two misnomers are also a quite misleading.

“Teaching to the test” has been the pragmatic approach to accepted school practice for quite some time. As a retired teacher I always taught to the test. If I spent two weeks covering a unit on the American Revolution, I then gave an exam on the American Revolution. Would it have made sense to give them an exam at the end of those two weeks on food chains and food webs? I don’t think so. So if teachers are spending a significant amount of time teaching reading/language arts and/or math, that’s probably understandable. Isn’t it?

As for teaching test strategies taking up too much time, I’m not buying it. This should be fairly straightforward and should not consume a significant portion of any teacher’s time.

Just a lowly homeschooler here, who's sifted through numerous curriculums in hopes of finding the most efficient method to keep my children excited about learning, and those building blocks of sound knowledge firmly at the forefront of their education. Climbing Parnassus by Tracy Lee Simmons suggests Latin, Greek, and Mathematics are enough to prepare any child for University, at the level required during the founding of our nation. These basics may have little chance of appearing in public school curricula, but I'm sold on Charlotte Mason's method (amblesideonline.org) of cycling through history, beginning with Egypt, Greece, Rome, Middle Ages, U.S. History, and repeat, and repeat.

Spending an entire year on Egypt secured so many basic ideas in my daughter's head, now we are onto Greece (oh, the mythology and art we get to incorporate)...etc. This method centers children in ancient times before they move forward into modern problems and grappling with ideas the past created. To know that mathematics has a history, that science has beginnings in commerce...this perspective locks in knowledge, before it branches off and gets strewn before them in our schools, as if they were floating particles.

Also, every third grader invested in Rome--in addition to math, grammar, music, reading skills--unites them in their knowledge. There are so many more books that could be produced that would center around this information, historical fiction, well-illustrated adventures laced with facts, hands-on projects galore. Kids do not grow tired of digging deeper, material is swiped away before they become invested. It's a great flaw in the system.

I imagine afterschool cartoons, as a norm, clarifying who the Greek gods were, who Roman leaders were, the stories of the Middle Ages. We let our kids down thinking they want the same mindless entertainment that we do. If they could connect what they see on tv with what they've learned at school, what an economy!

So many tools at our disposal, so many ideas overlooked, so many dialogues not being had. Is there anyone who has the power to do the studies, who has a bigger platform and a louder voice, who can hear some logical, practical changes we can make in education, from someone who's lived the system, but now wisely stands outside looking in?

In high school kids write speeches, persuasive papers...yet they've been emptied of the passion of having a voice. Our democracy is at stake here, but a united vision is all it takes, and teamwork. God bless.

Dear Paul,

Learning science and math is not all about reading about science and math! There are nations in the world--and schools in the US-- that do not teach reading until kids are 7 or 8 years old! There is no
evidence that these kids, schools and nations do worse on the long run--even on tests of reading! Naturally they do worse on tests of 8 year olds reading.

They may have a stronger understanding of science--a hard subject to rely on paper-and-pencil tests to determine. The very concept of
science, and our fascination with making sense of physical phenomenon, is hardly the stuff of textbooks! As many of my science friends
say--it starts with lying outside on a summer night and looking into the awesome sky; or mindfully observing birds, insects, or the way a
bike works.

The same is true for history--which begins with a rich sense of the complexity of uncovering the past--the kinds of sources, the threads that make for a rich and true story! As such it's a great subject for 4 year olds. And mathematics! Nothing is probably more damaging to ordinary children than trying to teach them too much too early in the
way of "formal" paper and pencil formulaic math. And while the world would be a poorer place without mathematicians, it's unclear to me
that we'd do a lot worse if we weren't taught algebra as a formal subject until much later--and treated it more like advanced music! Now--probability and statistics--which we have trouble crowding into the math scope and sequence! . It's contemporary testing that makes it hard for some of us to really tackle the abysmal level of our
national understanding of these fields.

I have no comment here as to how teachers might chose to assess their own and their students classrooms, I just wish they'd not narrow their
own assessments down to only what kids "remember" right after they've been taught something! Remembering and making sense are not synonymous, and how knowledge shifts our understanding of the phenomenon in question is the real, longer term, measure of our work. And it's hard to "teach to" in a direct way. Paul--sometime watch the wonderful MIT movie called Private Universe, which is a wonderfully well told story about just this topic. (I'll try t locate how it can be obtained.)


JesK? I love your description of homeschooling. At Mission Hill we followed a scheme a bit like yours--studying everything at least twice--once in grades-3, and again 4-7: we did Egypt, Greece, Mayans and ancient China! Everytime someone tells me how they did it I get excited because there are many ways - ech with their own trade-offs. But the excitement of learning is what they share.


Notice I mentioned "science experiments and history projects" for kids not yet reading at grade level. I couldn't agree with you more about subjects like science and mathematics being much more of the hands-on disciplines in school.

However, it has always been my experience that in order for most kids to become more independent learners, their reading proficiency was key. It allowed them to investigate on their own and at their convenience specific questions they might have regarding myriad topics of interest. Whether it was the water cycle or cuneiform, their ability to read greatly enhanced their independence to learn. It afforded them the potential to open many more doors into their curiosity. John Dewey aside, elementary school children must first learn to read which pragmatically enhances their ability to learn.

As for mathematics I always found it made more sense to teach arithmetic along with mathematics. It gave most kids an additional perspective into the world of numbers. You'll be happy to know much of the mathematics I taught was hands on, manipulatives, experiential, etc. If they saw how numbers were applied to real life it seemed to help turn the light bulb on earlier and easier.


Exploring an interesting comment from former governor Roy Romer at the PISA press conference earlier this week...

He said that he thought that it may be more productive to begin talking about international standards than federal or national ones. He believes that this idea may be more palatable than the thought "the great father" in Washington, DC telling parents what their kids should know.

An interesting thought. Clearly, large numbers of U.S. students have fewer skills to sell to employers than do students from a number of other nations around the world. And students here want a higher wage than many of their better-performing counterparts!

It seems that if parents could understand these realities that much of the opposition (local control, union problems, publishers, university professors) to real education reform would begin to melt away.

But, I have had a bad day here in Our Nation's Capitol. I have sat through meetings where smart people, people in positions-of-authority, have argued for silliness and done so with a straight face. It is days like these when I despair of things every really changing. Inertia will triumph, states will continue to tell parents (in best Lake Wobegon fashion) that all is well, the children of the fortunate will find their way, and the prospects for the many other good kids in this poor city will dim a bit more.

Deb and everyone,

Firstly, let's slow down and let some profound comments sink in. I wish we could invest the energy we put into national standards, which have very little potential for good, into something less risky. But I'm reluctant to face up to what we are really talking about, "mandated state-sponsored tests about intellectual truth." Let that sink in and you have to agree that low stakes standards do have high stakes for our principles.

Its true that this accountability-driven discussion results in "so many ideas overlooked, so many dialogues not being had." Contrast the beautiful investments made by Jesk's children with the obscenity of investing 4 and 5 year olds into the dynamics of insider information.
So I'd ask the government bureaucrat whether it was a really really really bad day which led to a slip. To me, unions are not resisting reform but let's accept your point for a second. How can we be discouraged that education professors are fighting ideas with ideas?

Lastly, just a few years ago, wouldn't most educators have had problems with trying "to teach" in a direct way? Even teachers who saw no alternative, would at least wish they could inculcate a sense of discovery.

I'm not discouraged but I have a sense of urgency for a lot of reasons. A whole generation of young teachers, as well as students are being socialized into systems and values that are not worthy of a democracy, especially not American democracy.



If we had national standards then we would at least have a chance of injecting quality education into our children’s schooling.

Currently, the curriculum is narrowing because the “implicit” standards are low level math and basic reading skills. If we had a national discussion about what a quality education would entail (which should happen before we enacted national standards) then we would have a voice that could insist that our children’s education is infused with history, science, art, music, literature and life skills.

Without a national discussion of what a quality education is, inertia will ensure the continuation of the current test prep education.

Erin Johnson

Can edweek host that national discussion?


A quick note about one of your comments.

Those nations that are able to start teaching reading at 7 or 8 generally enjoy a transparent language (that is all the sounds in their language have only one code/symbol and it is easy to sound out every word.) So consequently, the children learn to read fluently in 6 to 9 months, instead of the 2 – 3 years usually seen in English. Because their languages are transparent, those countries do not have a large fraction of students (estimates in the US are 10 – 20 percent) that fail to learn to fluently decode.

Just starting later in teaching reading (English) will not make us equivalent to those countries because our language is very opaque (that is multiple spellings for one sound and code overlaps.)

Erin Johnson


I do think that unions are an impediment to some of the more innovative reform ideas. I do not hold them up to special scorn, however, because I think that the education "problem" is actually a very complex systems problem with many components functioning in a suboptimal manner.

I just chose a few examples to "gore the ox" of folks on both the political left (unions, professors) and right (local control, publishers).

One example: A number of recent reports have suggested that given the difficulty in retaining qualified STEM teachers, that systems should consider differential pay schemes. Makes sense. Physics and math teachers simply have skills that make them more marketable than a history teacher. Maybe thats too bad--but tech companies here have learned that they can hire good STEM teachers and end up with productive and loyal employees (because their salary may have been doubled.) So why don't we just acknowledge market realities and pay certain teachers more?? The rest will be left to the student as an exercise. (Hint- Who opposes differential teacher pay?)

On the other (political) hand we have the illusion of local control. Diane said this well in her last post. Of course we have national standards! They are de facto, embodied in the handful of textbooks in each subject that dominant the market. I once went to dinner with a textbook publisher (FYI- I paid for my own dinner) who described how they look at the RFP's for the big states, Texas, California, Florida, New York. They then try to design a book that will be competitive in those markets--and that's what the rest of the country gets, like it or not! The result is the bloated, incoherent texts that most of our children use today. Designed, not to deliver conceptual understanding and passion for the subject, but rather to satisfy the checkoffs required by half a dozen unrelated RFP's!

It is hard, sometimes, not to despair. But today is a new day and I found that, inexplicably, the sleet outside has raised my spirits! ;-)

Gov Bureaucrat,

Makes sense to me. I just got home from listening to our union president explain logistical and political problems he has to address to persuade the rank-in-file to support reforms, as well as his perceptions of the problems the superintendent has on his end. The complexity of all these is amazing.

Its hard to see a down side on the differiential pay issue that you mention, and we have been brainstorming on TAP-like proposals. You are right on the de facto standards and the dynamics of textbooks, also.

I'm thrilled by the prospect of sleet here. We need any moisture and it makes the trees absolutely beautiful. Maybe it will turn into snow tonight.


I have been thoroughly enjoying this dialogue. Perhaps it is the holiday season that contributes to the charity of posters actually listening to (or reading) one another. It gives me hope that perhaps solutions can be found.

For my part, I am reluctant to accept that accountability systems (in the form of standards and assessments) drive mediocrity. For one thing, this doesn't appear to be the case in the international arena. I really don't know if the Finnish (a country where students enter primary school at age 7) have a more transparent language (or languages, I believe that they teach at least 3 "mother tongues"). I do know that they dedicate a significant amount of time and attention to the teaching of language in those early grades. The also (along with most countries other than ours) don't regard multi-lingual capability as a handicapping condition, but rather an expectation.

I certainly share a frustration with unions' inability to get on any reform bandwagon--even though I am a union maid from way back. The teachers unions are one of the few remaining strong labor representative and I am of mixed mind when I see them take stands that regards their members more as low-skilled factory workers than as intellectual and creative professionals. Fostering creativity in an environment of accountability is going to take some sea changes in the way that teachers relate to one another and their jobs. Unions ought to be organizing for the right to year-round employment with non-teaching months being formally organized around teacher education, planning and curriculum development. They could be protecting the profession by urging colleges and universities to increase their admission requirements. They could lead in meaningful credentialling (thereby providing protection for workers who are able to establish themselves).

Like Govt Bureaucrat, I think about these things, but then get discouraged when I see some of the trivia that gets attention from adults. But overall, thanks for some thoughtful and enjoyable posts.

Regarding the transparency of Finnish (easy/fast to learn to decode) versus the opacity of English (exceptionally difficult/long to learn to decode) see:

“The American Way of Spelling” by Richard L. Venezky
“Early Reading Instruction” by Diane McGuinness

Other languages that are transparent are German, Italian, Turkish, Norwegian, Swedish and Spanish (to name a few).

I'm enjoying it too.

Ihave my doubts--anothert topic--about whether English is much harder to learn to read in than Spanish or Finnish. If one depends solely on letter-sound correspondences it might appear to--but any 6 or 7 year old who can realy turn those signs into accurate and fluent reading based on all the exceptions in English phonics is already a genius. It's a system of clues--unlike math. Phonics is at best only a part of the process which itself happens actually rather quickly when kids (or a kid) is ready--which is closer to age 7 than age 4 when we are starting these days. The extra 3-4 years "head-start" on reading skills per se may even be an obstacle!
Again, it's where we're trying to "go" that is so important. I don't want adults who CAN read, but who see the written language as an ally and partner. Ditto for math. I actually want adults who feel playfully competent with numbers and numeric relationships, who "get" the place-value system and can extrapolate based on it, who love the way one can fool around with probability and statistics--not in the interest only of pure math but of its everyday uses--including everyday fun.

Thanks, everyone.


Deb - but the way people become readers is through fluency - which the FREE DIBELS test can help track.

Many educators either give lip service to Ogden Lindsley, ignore his work (and those who followed), or are ignorant of the literature. Simply, speed plus durability plus accuracy equal keeping the skill over time. Reading is a skill. Once fluent you can now start learning vocabulary and gaining comprehension.

Whole language leaves too many kids behind. Please don't do that to kids - it was done to mine and I consider it educational abuse. I'm entering the field to help kids from "whole language" folks who have literally messed them up.

Dear Kathy and Calvin,

And I entered the field 42 years ago to save kids from the damage that was done in the name of phonicsin Chicago public schools!

So maybe different kids learn different ways? My own three learned almost exclusively via whole language--this was before that phrase was invented--as I did too in the old old days of Dick and Jane. one-by-one in a h Whichever strategy we use I think we're both for not holding off on introducing kids to the wonderful world of good books--ighly literate setting.

I'd suggest that lots of kids learn fluency by reading, not vice versa!

Bravo for them--it saves us all time. It was through reading tons and tons of "easy" books, serials, repetitive dumb stuff (like Nancy Drews) that I became a fluent--silent--reader. It's becoming a "silent" reader that is for far too many kids a puzzle, like an impossibility--that they just can't imagine; since they were overtaught pronouncing words aloud as THE ONLY form of reading. They literally feel guilty when they get so engaged with a book that they forget to pronounce all the words aloud, or "semi-silently". Then there were the other casualties--kids who faked it by memorizing and hoping no one noticed. I think we need less heat and more light on the subject.

I prefer phonics in teaching kids early spelling, and whole language for early reading, and then for borrowing from one to the other as kids seem to need it. Most kids switch naturally to "correct" spelling once they are good readers, and likewise use the phonics they learn from writing to make them better readers! And some need more of one than the other, and some need something entirely different..

For some kids "invented" phonics-based writing is intolerable--they have to have it right from day one. For some kids asking them to scan text (which is what fluent readers are doing) is intolerable, they have to have it just right. Hours upon hours of listening to fluent adult readers read aloud is a marvelous experience for realizing how different the experts handle text; ditto for having fluent readers read a half a line before covering the other half of it up and see how much they have pre-scanned ("literally read) ahead of their voice). When kids reach that point I know they are about finished with the learning to read lessons--now it's literary analysis, argument, style, and on and on.

We don't do enough reading aloud--including use of books on tape--for those who need a much greater exposure to the way that written language works in contrast to everyday spoken English. And to keep them abreast of the world as their reading skills catch up to their intellectual skills.

There's a lot for us each to learn from the other!



While some children can “intuit the code” from a whole language experience, many can not (estimates are 30-50% of children).

Those children that can not learn to decode fluently do not learn to read (even though we both would probably agree that “reading” means interpreting/constructing meaning from a passage or story.) A distinct lack of fluent decoding becomes an impenetrable barrier to real reading.

In the school systems whose children learn a “transparent language” the vast majority of children learn to decode fluently in 6-9 months. What teacher of English would not enjoy having all their children become fluent decoders in that time?

English is complex and we have such an extensive history of look-say and whole word reading that complete phonetic decoding (sounding out each and every word) has fallen out of favor to the detriment of our children. (This is not to say that many of our current phonics programs are very good as most current programs drill to an excess without making the direct connection between the sounds/letters and reading real books.)

But the complicated nature of English necessitates a longer learning time than that seen with transparent languages. In transparent languages, the children learn the sounds; learn the symbol that represents that sound and how to blend them together to make a recognizable word. Simple. And it works for every single word in their language. That means that at the end of 1st grade, Finnish students can decode almost as well as college students. (That is not say that they can understand what college students can, only that the fluency of their decoding is similar to a college student.) Wouldn’t that make things easy for our children if we had that for English?

Our language (English) is so opaque (and usually poorly taught) that our children need 2-3 years before they become fluent decoders (and unfortunately 10-20% of them do not). This extensive time to develop decoding skills does not happen with children learning a transparent language. Our children need to start in kindergarten just to keep up with the 7 or 8 year old children learning Finnish, Spanish or any other transparent language.

If we advocate children waiting to school until 7 or 8, we are only delaying the process, not making it better. So our children would perpetually lag 1-2 years behind those that learn in a transparent language, delaying the age at which children can pick up a book and enjoy reading it independently. English is just complex; made more so by the mish-mash of methods used to teach our children to decode.

By the way, I completely concur with your use of read-a-louds. Language development should not be completely constrained to phonics/decoding lessons. Read-a-louds are a great way of developing great language ablity at a time when decoding skills are still developing.

Erin Johnson

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