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Standardized Testing Is Bitter (But Necessary) Medicine

What's worse than annual standardized testing? Not having it at all.

The fate of annual standardized testing is being considered as Congress debates the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), otherwise known as the No Child Left Behind Act.  Recently, I had the chance to observe a Senate committee hearing on ESEA; while Senate testimony is rarely scintillating, during the hearing I found myself questioning my beliefs about standardized testing.

Of the six expert witnesses that offered testimony, there were not one, but two social studies teachers. Ms. Jia Lee and Mr. Stephen Lazar spoke beautifully and passionately about classrooms built on inquiry, exploration, challenge, and support. Both explained that annual standardized testing needed to be reformed, and Ms. Lee strongly advocated that it be discontinued. I loved their arguments that education should be far more than simplistic multiple choice questions, especially Mr. Lazar's call for fewer, better tests that are used to improve teacher practice, not punish schools and students.  But despite admiring Ms. Lee's descriptions of her class, by the end of the hearing I strongly disagreed with her refusal to administer standardized tests to her students and her recommendation that annual statewide standardized testing be ended.  

Ms. Lee teaches at a school whose philosophy is built around educating the whole child and engaging students in ways that create a love for learning. Her school and classroom seem ideal, and they reminded me of a few schools in Baltimore with similar philosophies. But while Lee's school was founded in 1992, the public schools in Baltimore doing similar work are the result of two important changes in the early 2000s: the growth of charters, and the decision to measure all public schools by the same standardized tests. Standardized testing revealed important widespread disparities between students (and groups of students) and this data created a lot of the urgency that empowered people to consider new (better) approaches to student learning. Lee advocating for the end of testing is like a healthy person saying that an awful tasting medicine that nursed them to health should be abolished.

What would happen if we no longer had to take the bitter pill of standardized testing? At the most basic level, it would become much harder to figure out which schools aren't doing an adequate job of reaching students. Politicians and bureaucrats could game statistics to make achievement gaps disappear in order to appeal to voters who don't know what is going on in their local schools. Without comparisons, failing schools would face little pressure to improve. The needs of historically underserved populations would go unnoticed beyond their classrooms. Without standardized testing, successful schools with a strong sense of mission would continue to thrive, but would their lessons be adopted for all students?

There's a legitimate argument for flexibility with testing, but baseline data from testing serves an important need. It's the federal government's job to ensure equity of access to a quality education. Testing in its current form may seem detrimental to student learning, but the only thing that's worse than standardized testing is not having testing at all.

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