State legislatures have begun requiring the development of achievement tests and standards for K–12 schools. The new federal act titled No Child Left Behind requires state participation in an ambitious uniform testing system for the nation. For several reasons, such testing may be worthwhile if done right.
First, we need to know how our students compare with those in other countries. The 1983 report A Nation at Risk began shifting policy-makers' and the public's concerns to student achievement. The report showed that American students lagged behind those in other countries and argued that the best jobs, including those in the industries of greatest growth, required general knowledge, language mastery, and mathematical, scientific, and technical skills. In addition, voting, serving on juries, and other forms of citizenship require such knowledge and skills, as well as mastery of history and civics.
Despite many reforms and substantially increased spending, our schools are doing no better than they were in 1983. Even with our high per-student spending (compared to the rest of the industrialized world), the longer U.S. students are in school, the farther behind they fall. If our students are to meet world standards, we need to measure their progress and find out what works best. Reading achievement tests, for example, enabled the National Reading Panel to conclude that phonics instruction, though insufficiently used in schools, helps provide young students with a solid foundation for acquiring reading skills.
Second, systematic testing provides useful information. School boards should hold educators accountable for the results they produce; they should examine educators' progress compared to that of others in attaining well-defined achievement standards. When board members concentrate on initiating programs and practices, they may lose their objectivity when evaluating educators' progress in attaining results.
Moreover, frequent examinations help provide teachers with information about what students are learning. Based on this knowledge, teachers need to plan their lessons accordingly. Regular testing encourages students to be prepared for classes and can be a source of learning; requiring essays and providing feedback, for example, help students not only comprehend the subject matter but also become better writers.
Third, national surveys indicate that educators are much less enthusiastic about tests than citizens, parents, and even students. Few professionals or other workers want to be held accountable; but, in education, our nation's welfare and students' development are at stake. Tests help boards and educators concentrate on their primary responsibility, which is learning. Regrettably, boards and educators have taken on responsibilities, such as driver education, for which they are not chiefly responsible and for which they may lack competence. Tests help teachers concentrate on what parents and the public expect children to accomplish. For children in poverty and related conditions, school provides the best opportunity to rise above their circumstances.
Finally, tests are cheap. Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby estimates that we annually spend $4.96 per pupil on commercial tests and from $1.79 to $34.02 on state tests—tiny fractions of average per-student spending of $8,157. At such costs, few activities can produce such big benefits for our students and our nation.