Since early in America’s history, education has been integral to our nation—a way of overcoming class and caste distinctions that, in other countries, prevent people from realizing their dreams and hopes through their intellect and energies. In terms of individual advancement, education is essential to opportunity.
For that reason, any attempt to conduct the education policy debate among “experts” alone is destined to fail, for parents, lawmakers, and other civic stakeholders insist on making school business their business. Witness the current debate on the proper place of testing in American education, which in some instances pits parents and elected policymakers who support testing against a group of education experts who skeptically disparage what testing can determine.
Without question, the new emphasis on testing is linked to a larger cluster of reforms calling for more accountability on the part of school systems and school administrators. Almost without exception—and with a speed not often seen across a continent-wide school “system” that loosely connects 50 states and some 14,000 separate school districts—testing is gaining ground as the preferred tool by which to judge school achievement. The state-by-state trend toward standardized testing has been buttressed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which mandates that chronically poorly performing schools be closed and that school systems provide—and pay for—a better educational alternative.
Tests tell us what the problem is. U.S. students perform comparably to their international peers in the early grades but steadily lose ground as they move up in age and grade. By high school, U.S. student achievement ranks below that in almost all other industrialized commercial societies, despite per-pupil spending that puts the United States near the top internationally. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that something is wrong in America’s schools—something that people who are active in civic life need to set right.
In the effort to hold schools accountable, tests constitute a critical tool that can help identify children with learning disabilities, judge the efficacy of chosen curricula, and suggest the degree to which educational products, programs, and practices are working. That information arms state and local school boards with the knowledge they need to make appropriate choices. In terms of accountability, tests provide the data so that decisionmakers can do the rest.
But can tests actually help close the achievement gap between U.S. schools and their international counterparts? After all, there are critics—professional educators among them—who blame the tests for some of the ills of education today. These dissenters present a long list of charges: Tests measure fact learning only, not other forms of educational attainment; tests are biased against minority children; a test-heavy culture leaves teachers no time to do anything more than “teach to the test,” to name just a few.
Research by Richard Phelps and others, however, suggests these criticisms are unfounded and that well-designed tests can be a key tool in teaching and a yardstick in assessing educational accountability.
In some instances, objections to testing boil down not to empirical differences but to ideology: sharp differences among educators on how to teach and how—or even whether—to judge the outcome of the interaction between teacher and student. Keep in mind, however, that America is a nation of people who’ve had their report cards taped to the refrigerator door, who have sat through spelling tests, college final exams, and professional licensing tests, and who receive performance reviews at work.
We’re not convinced that our schools should be the one American institution exempt from getting its own grade, with penalties in cases of failure. All of which takes the issue of educational testing out of the hands of “experts only” and puts it squarely in the public debate.
All stakeholders in the effectiveness of American schooling—from parents who seek the best for their children to the local, state, and federal legislators who set the education policy that affects school performance—deserve to know if our schools are passing the test.