Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
It’s election season again. And like clockwork, some politicians have pulled out their old talking points that attack standardized testing, “teaching to the test,” and even pledging to end testing altogether—playing on emotions they think will translate into votes this fall.
No one likes to take tests. But testing – the measurement of what individuals know and can do – is a fact of life, just as our reflection in a mirror shows us realities that we might not want to see.
Some politicians hope that by bashing standardized tests or calling for their total annihilation, those less-than-pleasant feelings will cause you to jump on their bandwagon and ultimately vote for them. Not so fast. What are they really selling? And can they actually do what they’re promising? What would be the implications?
Parents hold the primary accountability for their kids’ education, which is why education freedom through school choice is paramount. But even then, parents should be empowered with feedback from testing if their child isn’t making learning gains. And if you’re not a parent of a child in public school, you’re likely a taxpayer funding education in your community, and you’d like to know that those dollars are being well spent.
How can you know if outcomes are positive? Test results provide those answers.
Federal and state laws require students attending public schools to annually take a test to measure what they’ve learned in core academic subjects. In my state of Louisiana, that test is called the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP). It’s given to kids in grades three through eight and in high school following the completion of courses deemed essential to preparing a student for successful transition to adulthood, college, and the workplace. The test lasts for less than two percent of total instructional minutes of the school year, but provides a wealth of information about what kids have learned.
Results are provided to parents, educators, and school leaders so that they can act on them – in this case, to help children improve where they’re not yet proficient. Without that information, they’re shooting in the dark. They can’t address or improve what they don’t know.
Some argue we should just use teachers’ grades for that purpose. But even where state laws require public schools to follow a uniform grading scale, teachers’ grading can be inconsistent. Just like kids have different learning styles and needs, teachers have different styles of teaching and grading. Some measure student learning differently. Grades are largely subjective and grading can be inconsistent, even within the same school.
By contrast, standardized testing provides an objective measure of what students have learned. Results can be compared across public schools statewide because they all teach those same standards. Norm-referenced tests, like those used by many private schools, measure learning compared to peer groups, often across the United States. You see, testing is a self-evaluation, much like looking in the mirror. You may or may not like what you see. It might make you uncomfortable. And what you see might prompt you to improve something. That’s the whole point.
Sometimes mirrors can be warped, discolored, or broken, rendering an inaccurate reflection of reality. That happens sometimes. It means one should repair or buy a different mirror, not that one should never be used again or that mirrors don’t work.
The same is true for standardized tests.
There are several types that serve different purposes. In some cases, there are laws and regulations specifying what states can use. Like anything, some tests could stand to be improved. But we don’t stop using them because we don’t like having kids sit for a brief test or because we don’t like the results. Instead, we value the information about how well kids are learning and where we should focus our efforts on helping them to improve.
And if there are concerns about teachers “teaching to the test,” then why aren’t they already teaching that material? The test shouldn’t be only prescriptive about what should be taught as there should be room for other lessons, but it should provide insights on the basics and levels of proficiency on standard subjects.
So, the next time a candidate talks about doing away with standardized testing, ask why. Then ask, if that measurement is discontinued, how will objective information be provided to parents, educators, and taxpayers to inform teaching and learning? And then make a decision based on information, not emotions.
Or if emotions rule, let them be those rooted in love and concern for our children’s educational growth and hope for our state’s future. Remember, we can’t improve what we don’t know; let’s be sure to have the information needed to chart our path.
This article originally appeared at Real Clear Policy.
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