Saturday Post: Be Careful What You Test For…

This post follows up on last Saturday’s post that ended with the question, “How did we end up here?

Recently, parent and teacher groups have begun questioning the amount of required testing (and preparation for required tests) in today’s schools. This is a conversation all of us should take part in.

However, we also need to consider what is tested. As schools and teachers are increasingly held accountable on the basis of a narrow range of required tests, we run the danger of confusing test results with learning. This is because what is tested for accountability purposes becomes what is valued and taught. On the other hand, what is not tested for is crowded out of children’s education, regardless of its actual value.

In short, because of the pressure to perform, teachers teach to the test, and if it is not on the test it does not get taught.

This is the challenge expressed in a presentation about NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests just last month (February 2014). That presentation begins with this telling sentence:

Contemporary education policy, whatever else it may or may not have accomplished, has narrowed the school curriculum by holding schools accountable primarily for their student scores in math and reading.

NAEP is a national test of samples of students, using the same questions in every state, making state comparisons possible. NAEP also uses the data to compare student learning from year to year in 9, 13 and/or 17 year olds, depending on the test. NAEP tests reading and mathematics most often and highly publicizes those results.

NAEP also tests other content but much less frequently and publicizes the results far less. (See NAEP’s website, nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ for writing, science, the arts, civics, economics, U.S. history, geography and technology/engineering literacy.) As the presentation reveals, NAEP also originally planned to assess student attitudes and behaviors but does not do so today.

As the new School Board and a new superintendent reexamine Jeff Co school goals and education policy, we should ask the Board and the superintendent some questions inspired by the presentation:

  • Should we test our students’ knowledge across the range of curricular areas that matter to us and our society?
  • If we don’t, how does that influence what we teach and what students learn? (Learning and playing a musical instrument into our old age may matter much more to quality of life than algebraic knowledge.)
  • Even in the most-tested areas of math and reading, do we test what matters to us and to our society? (Do our children leave school knowing how to budget and save money? Do they choose to read books in their free time?)
  • Do we test for behaviors and attitudes that matter to us and to our society? (Perhaps governmental gridlock would lessen if we taught and assessed students’ ability to cooperate and compromise more effectively and their commitment to listening to understand multiple points of view.)
  • How could we use a broader set of assessment data to adjust our educational processes in order to truly educate all our students?

As we watch and interact with the new Board and superintendent, especially as they reexamine educational goals and policy, we should raise questions like these. Our children deserve a broad-based education that enhances their quality of life. And we all deserve graduates who can participate actively and effectively in our democratic way of life.