Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

What Role Should Tests Play In Judging Indiana Schools?

Frederick Florin / AFP / Getty Images

An exam in progress.

“Hoosiers really need to have a conversation about testing” and what role it should play in Indiana classrooms, Indy Star education reporter Scott Elliott wrote earlier this month:

Here’s the thing about standardized tests like the ISTEP and end-of-course exams given in Indiana — there’s a lot of disagreement about their value and how they are used. That is a fair debate…

A standardized test can never tell you everything about the test taker… But what standardized tests are very good at is telling a student how they compare to their peers at that moment. Even if you consider all the blind spots of the test… you can still learn something from the comparisons.

In a way, the debate Elliott called for played out on a national scale in The New York Times opinion section over the weekend. 

The Times‘ “Room For Debate” feature asked whether there was a way to fairly assess a school’s performance without “provid[ing] incentives for obsessive testing and cheating,” especially as many states — including Indiana — craft their own replacements for No Child Left Behind.

ICYMI, here are some of the responses the Times collected. Julia Fox, a California high school sophomore, wrote:

No Child Left Behind was established just as I was going into kindergarten, so I’ve grown up with this law. I’ve always ended the school year with the required tests, so I’ve never known anything different.

Tests are important, but are not the only way to find out what kids can do. I know I am not the best test taker, so multiple choice tests aren’t always the best way to show my abilities. And I wouldn’t want to just learn how to score better on them.

Former Indy Star writer RiShawn Biddle says testing isn’t perfect, but writes that he’s more concerned states will throw out the good parts of NCLB along with the bad:

Some worry that using student test data to measure teacher performance will unfairly hurt teachers. But this is the wrong worry. Certainly standardized testing isn’t perfect. But… testing has proven to be the best, most-objective tool for measuring both student and teacher success…

Instead of worrying about testing, we should be concerned about rolling back our nation’s commitment to providing high-quality education to the kids who have historically been the worst-served by our traditional public schools. Our children deserve better.

And here’s Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank:

Objective test score information should remain part of school evaluation. Most parents wouldn’t sit lightly if their child flunked basic tests in reading and math. Society should be similarly alarmed when whole schools full of students fail tests — a tragedy that remains all too common, even after a decade of No Child Left Behind. But we now have the opportunity to broaden the scope of information used to rate schools, and rely more heavily on trained evaluators to interpret that information. When Congress writes the next version of No Child Left Behind, it should move in this direction.

Elliott called for a conversation, The New York Times is obliging on a national level. But the conversation about the effects of rating schools is much less abstract in Indiana than it is in many other states — here, state takeovers at five schools and closures of charter schools have resulted from poor test scores.

So, Hoosiers, let’s pose the Times‘ question here — add your thoughts in our comments section:

How can you measure the achievement of students, teachers and schools in a way that is fair, accurate and doesn’t provide incentives for obsessive testing, and cheating?


  • inteach

    The test-driven and highly punitive NCLB law was a disaster. It did not produce anything close to the achievement gains supporters promised. In the scientific world, that’s called objective data.

    Indiana’s answer to a failed law? Institute even tougher, test-driven punitive measures.

    Insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

  • Doug Martin ’Achievement’ means more than a score on a standardized test. We knew it in 1998, and we know it now,” writes Hoosier scholar Phil Harris (and co-authors Joan Harris and Bruce M. Smith) in The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do, a must-read book which criticizes George W. Bush’s NCLB, Obama’s testing “blueprint,” and Tony Bennett’s drive for testing “drill camps.”

    Harris is right. Standardized tests are the weapons of mass mis-instruction. They profit companies who often have political ties to lawmakers, like Pearson†, the educational mega-company, which has made a killing off of grading standardized tests since NCLB became law, along with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi who owned a $453 million stake in Pearson. McGraw-Hill, publishers of Indiana’s textbooks and ISTEP tests, are long-standing friends with the Bush Family, and even George W. Bush’s brother Neil has profited.

    Standardized tests are also being used as a ruse to deem schools “failing” so they can be turned over to for-profit educational management outfits, who more times than not also have political ties to any given region.

    These tests, which supposedly hold teachers “accountable,” are meant to drive well-qualified teachers out of the workforce, so they can be replaced with temporary Teach for America or Teach Plus workers (both groups are in Indianapolis), before these temps fly off to their jobs on Wall Street.

    Indiana will spend $46 million this year on testing and remediation, says Dr. Vic Smith in a May 12, 2011 memo entitled Observations on Education Items in the 2011 Budget, which has been circulated among public school advocates.

  • Jenny Robinson

    The high-stakes nature of these tests has a perverse effect, encouraging schools to deliver discrete pieces of information rather than process-oriented understanding. For instance, my child’s school has purchased something called “Study Island.” I encourage you to look it up. I did. I spent over an hour one evening exploring its sample content and teaching method (it is an online drill/review program explicitly advertised as a way to help meet state standards). I cannot overemphasize what a waste of time it seemed. And worse. Descriptions of the Earth’s relationship with the moon, for instance, lacked anything concrete or mysterious. I have checked books out of the library about the moon and my kids have found them fascinating. In Study Island, the connection to the actual world is diminished, and the content is fodder for fact-recall video games. Same goes for the sketch of Indiana pioneer history (which section I failed when I took the sample test.) After reading the information I could fill out the bubble sheet correctly, but I had gained no meaningful or useful context. Some people will say that exercises like Study Island’s are useful support to actual teaching. I disagree. I tend to think the implicit attitude toward knowledge embedded in them undermines the importance and real connections in the material.

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