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Why We Shouldn’t Throw School Testing Out Even Though It’s Not Perfect


As another round of testing passes and students and teachers start itching for the freedom of summer, Americans can expect to see another cycle of complaints and editorials complaining about standardized tests, along with stories of stressed-out teachers and students coping with the trauma of test prep. By now this has become an annual ritual with little end in sight, since the purpose seems more cathartic than reformative.

Curiously, criticism of tests is bipartisan. Both the left and the right have their own reasons for disliking tests. However, these reasons mostly negate one another, since the left generally sees standardized tests as asking too much of students and teachers while the right sees them as asking too little. Although critics have yet to eliminate tests, these arguments are helpful in showing what to do with standardized testing and what to avoid.

Why the Left Doesn’t Like Tests

The first and most repeated argument on the left is that testing is unfair to students. It does not accurately reflect their overall work and progress, nor take into account other educational accomplishments that are not graded. A kid might make beautiful art or play an instrument, but this is not tested. He might know how to fix cars, set up a tent and build a fire, or produce movies on his computer, but the test only tells him he cannot do math or read at grade-level.

In the interest of well-roundedness and better assessing these unrecognized accomplishments, school leaders will usually propose some kind of portfolio that can capture the full range of a student’s learning instead of a standardized test. Who grades these portfolios? The teachers, of course. Will it be objective? Hardly. In nearly all cases, such resolutions to replace tests with portfolios usually come to nothing.

Still, they contend, tests assess students who struggle with factors beyond their control like a learning disability, a broken home, or a language barrier. Schools that have many of these students (i.e., urban schools with minority-majority student populations) only stand to suffer.

George W. Bush answered this argument best when he (or, more accurately, his speechwriter Michael Gerson) famously called it “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” These ostensible advocates for the disadvantaged assume these kids are incapable of meeting any basic educational standard. It hardly does them any good to take away the test and assume that they will be fine growing into semi-literate adults.

None of This Takes Teachers Into Consideration

But what about their teachers? They obviously do not teach in an affluent district with well-adjusted students who have parents with college degrees and read to them as toddlers. They teach students who not only start at a lower place academically, but also learn at a slower rate because of their deficiencies.

While they usually do not lose their jobs or suffer pay cuts (unless they work in a desperate district like Washington D.C.), such teachers must endure various forms of humiliation, with angry lectures meant to guilt-trip, educational consultants and specialists, exhaustive data analysis, periodic benchmarks, and mandatory tutorial sessions for every failing student. On the surface, these strategies are meant to improve the situation, but in too many cases, they punish the teachers.

And what about the educators who work in affluent school districts that routinely breeze through the state tests, or people outside of education who want more from their neighborhood schools? They also have problems with standardized testing, though for the opposite reason: it is, at best, pointless, and at worst, subversive and detrimental to learning.

If the state standard is low—and, for all the bellyaching to the contrary, it usually is—then a school with favorable demographics gains nothing from having the majority of its students pass. Indeed, with the right demographics, it doesn’t even seem to matter if the teachers have their students play games and watch movies all year or actually do the hard work of learning.

In such a situation, the fun approach to instruction will often prevail, although it will fall under the euphemistic terms of “engagement” or “innovation.” Thus will students in a supposedly good public school district become bored and focus on extracurricular activities or choose to take test-driven AP classes—which are not necessarily bad things, at least for these students, but those not interested in these options have to settle for a meaningless educational experience.

Sometimes Tests Push Bad Instruction

Others rightly worry about how tests that incorporate questionable standards or skills can effectively corrupt instruction. As The Federalist’s Joy Pullmann observed about California’s math scores, adopting Common Core ultimately made students worse in math. Common Core has also met resistance from traditionally minded educators who lament its superficiality and failure to create a foundation of learning.

This means that teachers who do their best preparing their students to do well on such a test might be actually sabotaging their ability to succeed in life. Consequently, many of the seasoned teachers will pay lip service to whatever bad curriculum a district pushes, do a few practice tests, then go back to using materials that actually work.

More than anything else, these state tests with compromised standards that are either way too easy, shallow, or utterly inadequate for assessing a student’s learning (see “Pineapple Gate”) display the need for school choice and a testing company that is not beholden to one school system. Because of the state’s monopoly on schooling, it will test on its own terms and make sure that the testing company accommodates its students. In other words, the problem is not with testing, but with a state’s public school system.

This illusion is finally dispelled when these students take a national standardized test like the ACT or SAT and perform worse than in previous years. Unfortunately, when people discover this, the damage is already done and the state usually ignores this and does nothing.

If the state broke up their monopoly by allowing parents to choose their child’s school, then what happens on the national level could happen on the state level: the testing company would make an objective test that is not based on the relative standards of one state’s public school system, but on a set of absolute standards that school systems try to meet. If a testing company failed at this, school systems could find another one, since competition would finally exist among test makers as well.

And these are only a few of the arguments about testing. There are many more, including the testing giant College Board promoting a political agenda in its Advanced Placement exams and curriculum, “nonprofit” testing companies that enjoy an unfair monopoly that brings them millions of dollars each year, the absurdly high costs of standardized testing, or the regular cheating scandals happening across the country.

Yet, even with all these reasons to the contrary, it is ultimately better to have standardized tests because of this fundamental truth: if something is not tested, it is not taught.

Tests Are Better than No Tests

All that one has to do to prove anti-testers wrong is to show them what happens when students are not tested in a class. School risks becoming one big blow-off. This is what has become of electives and untested core subjects in K-12 education. Whether it is a foreign language, elective, fine art, or physical education (which is even offered online now), the teacher of that class is frequently valued more for his ability to watch the kids for that period of time than his ability to impart knowledge of that subject. With no test to worry about, teachers just need to keep those students busy.

Nearly all developed countries with decent education systems feature high-stakes testing.

College is also experiencing this kind of degeneration. In a study of more than 2,300 undergraduates, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that nearly half the students learned little to nothing from their four years in college. This only confirms what many people now experience in college: they work hard to get in, and then they find that it is relatively easy once they are there. Most of the learning that happens does not result from good instruction, but from the good studying habits good students already do on their own.

Even though colleges use standardized tests to recruit students and award them scholarships, they will hypocritically protest when someone proposes standardized tests for students already in college. Instead, they demand that college students rely on the goodwill of underpaid adjunct professors and apathetic tenured professors to challenge them academically. Perhaps these college officials know that if their students took an AP exam or anything comparable, they would fail miserably.

For those wondering about the rest of the world, nearly all developed countries with decent education systems feature high-stakes testing. Asking teachers to prepare their students for an exam is not an instance of American anti-intellectualism, but a practice that can be found across the globe.

While no test is ever perfect, it is indispensable to a quality education. Educators, parents, and students have every right to criticize a bad test, and they should so that the test and the standards it is based on improve.

At the same time, they need to realize the importance of the test and its key role in holding schools accountable. Depending on how society uses the test, it can serve as a tool for growth or act as a stumbling block for those foolishly looking for an easier answer to the challenges of education.