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Besting the Testing
Without Over-Investing

Developing a practical and powerful perspective on the most divisive issue we face in education today

by Steve Peha


As another school year begins, and I survey my clients around the country with regard to testing, the results are pretty much the same as they were last year: teachers and students are down in the dumps, parents and pols are up in arms. Only one thing seems certain: if you have a pulse, you have an opinion about testing in schools. And while the discussion seems desultory if not daunting, at least people are talking about results, a subject we seem to have studied cursorily at best — and responded to only once, really, when we found ourselves Sputniked into the Space Race and, in a typically paranoiac response, decided that teaching a little more math and science would make us all sleep better at night.

For the first time in the history of our republic, we are engaged in a substantive national dialog about the quality of teaching and learning; education matters from sea to whining sea. And while it’s certainly too early to know for sure, there is evidence in the data that some schools are making some gains, at least at the elementary level. Middle and high schools seem to be making less progress but there are glimmers here and there, too. What we don't know yet is whether these gains represent real learning or if they’re just the result of test familiarity due to increased test preparation. Only more time — and more testing — will tell.

Don’t Fight It, Invite It

Testing has been a part of our education system since the early 1900s. It's just part of school. So I say don't fight it, invite it. The best way to challenge the testing system is to beat it. Most of the schools I work with pick up 20-40 points on their scores over two to three years. If every kid gets the same high score, the test becomes less important and the testing system less necessary.

If everyone works together, and we do what makes sense, it's not hard to raise scores. My hope is that once scores get high enough — up into the 80s and 90s — we really won't need so much testing. At that point, we could, for example, use statistical sampling and test only one out of every 20 kids, (at fewer grade levels and subjects, too) thus reducing the national testing budget by billions of dollars each year, dollars that could be put into training to help teachers teach more effectively. But at the moment, millions of kids really aren't doing as well as they could, and testing is the only approach our education system is familiar with. It might be another generation or two before our country warms up to more effective, more efficient, and less costly approaches to assessing the quality of teaching and learning.

A Matter of Give and Take

The other thing I try to keep in mind is that the tests themselves are not the issue, we are. It matters less which tests we give, much more how we choose to take them. If teachers teach to the tests and not to their students, this is a problem. If schools deny educational opportunities to kids on the basis of test scores, this is a problem. If parents impose reward-punishment systems on their children based on test scores, this is a problem. If politicians use test scores to make social policy, this is a problem. If we all promote feelings of anxiety and animosity around testing to our peers and to our students, this is a huge problem because it unhinges our good judgment and undermines our collective effectiveness.

Whenever I feel myself getting upset about testing, I try to take the accountable position: I'm a part of the system, too. I have a responsibility to act, in a constructive way, on behalf of the students and teachers I serve. It doesn't help anyone — especially myself — if I just sit back and complain about things.

Don’t Blame It on the Rain

Personally, I do not oppose testing. To me, that's sort of like opposing the weather. I live in Seattle; it's always cloudy. Does that mean I spend every day pining for the sun? We've always had tests and we always will; testing is just part of our culture. The powers that be certainly have the right to impose testing (after all, we elected them), and those of us who choose to participate in the system really do need to go along and administer the tests to our students. Kids need to take the tests and do their best on them; parents need to send their kids to school to be tested or pay to send their kids to private schools; states need to report results and pay for the testing systems; schools need to analyze those results, draw reasonable conclusions from them, and take responsible, appropriate action to make improvements. Everyone must participate fully. You don't go back to bed in the morning just because it looks a little cloudy, right?

Though I am troubled at times by the current climate, I remain optimistic that its positive aspects will endure long after the negatives have been discovered and discarded. And there are some positive aspects. After all, we are at least attempting to look at the connection between quality teaching and quality learning. We may not be looking at it as accurately as I would like, but we are looking nonetheless. For once it really does matter how well someone teaches and how much their students learn. Only good can come of this kind of shift in our attitudes. I also think there will be important changes in administrative and teacher professionalism as well because the drive for better results will force educators to adopt more professional attitudes and use some of the same approaches to quality and performance that have long been used in the business world.

Raise Scores, Raise Expectations, Raise Awareness

As an education consultant, I try to do three things to help my clients with testing. First of all, I develop highly effective test preparation workshops and materials. These resources help kids get higher scores regardless of their ability levels. (All standardized tests have weaknesses and, in general, the newer a test is, the more those weaknesses can be exploited.) If I can help a school raise its scores by 10 or 20 points with just a couple weeks of test prep, teachers can have the rest of the year to make real improvements in the quality of their teaching. My goal with test preparation is simply to help teachers take off some of the pressure. Nobody does their best work under constant pressure.

The second thing I concentrate on is raising expectations for both teacher and student performance. Sadly, we are a nation of chronic under performers. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Teachers put in long hours struggling with large classes and little support for effective practice; kids just hang in as best they can hoping for a break in the same old same old. And the same old same old is just what we get: bad teaching that leads to bad learning. For my part, I concentrate on providing focused, high quality training that gets immediate results, dramatic results that change attitudes about how teachers can teach and what students can learn. After all, how can we expect to educate 21st century students with 19th century approaches? When attitudes change in the face of measurable improvement, expectations rise all around, and schools sustain long term gains.

The third thing I try to do is explain to people how the tests are created, how they're scored, how the results are used, what they really measure, etc. I feel that the best way to change the testing system for the better is simply to tell people about how it works and then let them decide for themselves whether it's any good. I have great faith in human nature. I think most of the negative impressions people have about schools result simply from a lack of complete and accurate information.

Dollars and Sense

Most people don't like tests; that's normal. Teachers, in general, oppose testing for their own certification. I don't see administrators and school board members lining up to take tests for their jobs. Parents would surely oppose testing for the right to bear and raise children (as would any sane person). Business leaders and politicians would oppose testing themselves, seeking instead more authentic measures of ability like profits or votes. (I suspect that the only people who truly like tests are the ones who gain advantage by giving them.) Eventually, I think we will all come to see that there are better ways of making improvements in our education system than widespread testing. Until then, testing is something we clearly have to go through.

By the year 2010 — or even sooner perhaps — I think our testing system will be in the throes of yet another great change because the current approach will be shown to have limited value relative to its cost. Knowing that one child got a 45 while another got a 54 doesn't give a teacher the specific information she needs to help either of them improve. Knowing that a school's reading scores went down by 4% or up by 9% over a three-year period provides only the vaguest notion of what might be going on in classrooms and how that might be changed for the better. It's not that this kind of data isn't helpful, it's that it isn't helpful enough. A different kind of assessment is required, one that supplies us with more direct and more practical information about students and teachers than the reductive, inauthentic standardized approaches of the past.

The best evaluation I have heard is that our current approach to testing is neither bad nor good, it simply costs more than it's worth. Everyone knows that the best way to improve learning is to improve teaching. And the best way to do that is to provide teachers with high quality training and the support they need to put that training into practice in their classrooms. Every dollar spent to test a child is a dollar lost for teaching a child. Fortunately, Americans are very sensitive to this kind of bang-for-the-buck analysis. I like to think of it as a simple “dollars and sense” argument: it just doesn't make sense to spend dollars on testing when we could be spending dollars on teaching and learning.


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