Why are classrooms silent right before summer break arrives instead of buzzing with uplifting and educated conversation? The answer can usually be found taped to the closed classroom door: “Do not disturb. Test in progress.”
For years, all across the nation, standardized tests have been administered to children and teenagers with hopes to measure and improve education. The endless variations of these tests and the myriad of acronyms invented to describe their purposes often leave students feeling uncertain as to why they are being tested, especially when in some cases, they won’t even see their scores.
Tests can certainly serve an important purpose in education, but all too often, over-zealous legislators act as if tests are the purpose of education. An education centered on and rooted in tests and tests alone, is not effective unless the intention of those administering the test is to improve students’ ability to fill out bubble sheets with a #2 pencil.
Thomas A. DiPrete, Giddings Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Center for the Study of Wealth and Inequality at Columbia University, and Claudia Buchmann, professor and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University, suggested in a recent study that the rate at which students graduate from college is intricately connected to those students’ success in middle school. Their data shows that students that received A’s in middle school have a 70% chance of completing college by age 25, whereas students with lower grades have significantly lower chances of achieving the same.
Few, if any middle school grades are based on one final test. Instead, they are earned through ongoing efforts of students to do assignments and projects and to participate, come to class on time, prepare and learn; they are earned with consideration of social and behavioral skills—not just tests— and which skills are essential to academic and professional success.
DiPrete and Buchmann said that “eighth grade grades are a better predictor of completing college than are standardized test scores.” They continued:
Students who earned higher grades in middle school went on to earn higher grades and attain a better class rank in high school in part because they exhibited behaviors that align with school success and were less likely to engage in behaviors that align with failure. High performing middle school students generally did more homework when they were high school sophomores and seniors. They were more likely to have taken Advanced Placement classes and less likely to have taken remedial high school courses in math or English. As high school students, they were more likely to enroll in and graduate from college. High performing middle school students were also more likely to avoid problem behaviors that correlate with academic failure. They were less likely to report that they missed school, were late to school, skipped classes, or often forget to bring pencils or books to class. They were also less likely to get in trouble or to be suspended. All of these intermediate behaviors, both positive and negative, are themselves predictive of completing college.
If middle school grades—not test scores—are predictive of completing college, and higher education, or college, is critical to success in today’s economy, then the point of focus for improvement in American education should not be on tests but on methods of building and shaping stronger and more successful behaviors and social skills among the youth of the nation.
Through their careful research, DiPrete and Buchmann concluded:
It is clear that earning a college degree has less to do with performance on standardized tests than with grades earned in high school. Students who earn good grades in academically rigorous high school courses are much more likely to obtain a college degree than are poorly performing students.
Unfortunately, these studies, and countless other studies showing the real needs in our education system, have not changed our leaders’ obsession with testing. If past trends continue, it can be expected that when funding is available to improve education, it will continue to go towards more testing. If research is mandated, that research will be for creating new test questions. If the bar must be raised in schools nationwide, the first step will be, as it always has been, more testing. The new name for this recurring phenomenon is the Common Core standards. It’s our favorite solution that never works.
While anyone hoping to improve education cannot disagree with the stated objectives and intentions of the Common Core standards, it is difficult to support its implementation because of its insecure foundation which depends too heavily on standardized tests. According to the editors of Rethinking Schools, the Common Core standards were mostlycreated by academics and assessment experts who they point out have ties to testing companies. The Common Core committees included very few teachers or current administrators and entirely excluded parents, which explains why the standards are tied to assessments. Rethinking Schools said, “So far, there is no research or experience to justify the extravagant claims being made for the ability of these standards to ensure that every child will graduate from high school ‘college and career ready.’” But this is no surprise. Rethinking Schools elaborates:
We have seen this show before. The entire country just finished a decade-long experiment in standards-based, test-driven school reform called No Child Left Behind. NCLB required states to adopt “rigorous” curriculum standards and test students annually to gauge progress towards reaching them. Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year in every grade from 3–8 and again in high school. (Before NCLB, only 19 states tested all kids every year, after NCLB all 50 did.)
As demonstrated in the past, schools need a different kind of reform. We cannot expect to get different results by trying the same things over and over again. No matter how sophisticated the tests become, without a concentrated effort to improve the classroom, the teachers, the learning process, the content, the resources, etc., education will not improve. Perhaps the Common Core tests are supposed to motivate the aforementioned improvements in the classroom, but in all reality, it is a recipe for discouragement.
Charlotte Danielson, a highly regarded mainstream authority on teacher evaluation and a strong supporter of the Common Core [pictured above], said, “I do worry somewhat about the assessments—I’m concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck here. The test items I’ve seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we’ll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing. That’s what I mean by train wreck.”
A test is not like magic fairy dust that can be thrown on students with expectations that it will make them fly. Improvement must start somewhere else. The issue is not whether or not students should be held accountable and if their learning should be measured.
According to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “accountability systems … had a clear positive impact on student achievement.” The issue is how we measure learning and how students are held accountable. Seeing that past methods of accountability have resulted in significant improvement, it is time to ask students to do what they have learned, to put it into practice, to teach others, and to demonstrate their growth outside of tests. It is time to think outside of the box and to influence behavior, to incorporate sociality and personality, and to stop obsessing over standardized tests. It is time to educate.