Can we use testing to get better?

One of the top experts and longtime proponents of educational testing, Gene Glass, has added his voice to the legions of Americans calling for an end to our national testing obsession.

When measurement became the instrument of accountability, testing companies prospered and schools suffered,” he wrote on his blog, reprinted in the Washington Post.

What should we take from Glass’s announcement? Will it change anything? Should it change anything?

Testing was supposed to call our attention to underperforming schools and students who had been neglected. It’s not like we didn’t need something. We needed to notice the achievement gap, and I don’t remember talking about it much before NCLB.

Unfortunately, identifying problems and solving them are two very different things. The solution, as a friend who teaches in the St. Paul Public Schools has pointed out, has been to give struggling learners even less access to opportunities that their privileged, private-school counterparts get. No more music or arts for you — back to math class for more remediation!

Eric Toshalis, in his book Make Me, argues that the testing culture forces low performers into remediation tracks that increase rather than decrease the achievement gap. Lower-track classes offer less rigorous content and hours of drill and practice, while higher achievers get to explore interesting questions and work on projects.

It should be clear to anyone thinking seriously about this issue that the only way to close the gap is to help low-performing students progress more quickly. We won’t do that by dumbing down content or boring the students to death.

The problem with our testing obsession isn’t that we test students — we do need to know how they are doing, whether they are making progress in school. The problem is that we take the test results and use that information to punish students, teachers and entire schools.

What if we used the test results to identify struggling learners, then used the research on best practices to offer them a truly enriching, engaging school experience? What if instead of demanding that low-achieving students sit still and fill out worksheets, we created relevant, rigorous lessons that made them want to learn more?

Maybe then, the growing backlash against testing would simmer down, and we could actually start to make progress.