Tensions in Testing

For me, testing is a difficult issue.

On one hand, I view testing as a useful tool for understanding how well public schools are serving students.

On the other hand, I worry that centralized testing regimes inhibit innovation.

I wish this tension, as well as others, were broadly discussed in pieces that debated the issue.

Some other thoughts on testing that I wish received more attention:

1. Testing Can Increase Learning

Too often, testing is viewed as something that gets in the way of learning. However, research has shown that testing increases learning. The act of information retrieval cements knowledge. It is wrong to say that testing is “wasted” instructional time. Of course, content must be delivered as well as assessed, but assessment is part of sound instruction.

2. More Tests Can Fight Against the Narrowing of Curriculum

If you assume more instructional time will be spent on tested subjects, then increasing the number of tested subjects is a way to fighting against content narrowing. More testing can lead to more content coverage.

3. Testing is in Part a Substitute for Market Accountability

In most sectors of the economy, government does not hold companies accountable based on the quality of their products (unless they are breaking the law); rather, we assume consumers will be the best arbiters of quality. However, because our school systems are operated by (mostly) government monopolies, we can’t rely on market mechanisms to judge quality. One can make a reasonable defense for (1) public schools + testing or (2) voucher systems + no testing. But arguing for public schools + no testing risks being in a world with no real measure of quality.

4. Teacher Evaluations Require Annual Testing; School Accountability Does Not**

For value-added teacher eval models to be employed, you probably need annual testing. However, so long as every school has at least two tested grades, you likely do not need  annual testing to measure school performance. Getting rid of annual testing need not mean getting rid of school accountability.

My Tentative Ideal Education Governance and Testing Regime

Here’s what I think I’d want it to took like:

1. All schools are operated by non-profits that are on four year renewable contracts.

2. The government creates rigorous tests for every year of schooling*, but schools need not test every year. Rather every school must offer two tests across the grade spans it serves, so growth measure can be recorded. Additionally, every school must test its students at least once every four years.

3. To receive a contract renewal, a school must meet either a growth goal or a fairly high absolute goal.

4. To give easily consumable information to families, the government would assign letter grades to schools based on academic performance.

I think this could regime could increase innovation while still allowing for some oversight and accountability of public spending. However, this regime is predicated upon the non-profit operation of schools. I’d be hesitant to give up annual testing without significant increases in choice mechanisms.

*I’m open to the idea of government putting out an approved set of tests rather than forcing every school to take the same test, but I worry a lot about losing the ability to reliably compare schools, especially with regards to high stakes accountability systems.

**Twitter addendum: good back and forth on twitter on whether or not you could do school growth models if you tested every other year or so. My guess was that you could, but if you can’t, I’d be more hesitant to give up annual testing.

One thought on “Tensions in Testing

  1. JM

    You are confusing different sorts of testing.

    The kind of testing in your #1 is definitely valuable for students. Also called a “quiz”, or “formative assessment” if you prefer big words. There should be more of this.

    This is not the same kind of test that are at issue in discussions of teacher evaluation regimes and school accountability. Those standardized annual tests of are questionable value for their intended purpose, and of no value at all for student improvement.

    When you suggest that “the government creates rigorous tests” you are presumably talking about the second kind of test. The idea (of using such a test to compare schools and measure improvement) sounds good, but in practice no test has been demonstrated to actually be of any use for this purpose, and the high-stakes drama around the tests is harmful to the kids instead of beneficial.

    So please do give us more testing-for-increased-learning, i.e. frequent classroom quizzing and rapid feedback. But don’t confuse this with the annual, high stress, slow and worthless feedback tests that have no relevance to improving student learning and are of dubious value in improving schools.

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