A resolution adopted by the State Board of Education last week represents a powerful broadside against the overuse and abuse of standardized testing in public schools.
Here are some of the assertions in the board’s statement and its resolution: Overreliance on standardized testing “is undermining education quality and equity in the nation’s public schools.” It is causing “considerable collateral damage in areas such as narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, reducing love of learning, pushing students out of school and undermining school climate.” The negative effects of testing are especially harmful for low-income students, English language learners, children of color and those with disabilities.
Because of the frequent misuse of standardized tests, the board has adopted a series of guidelines for their proper use. Any test must be “scientifically and empirically valid.” In other words, test results must have meaning. And test results must be only part of a “diverse set of measures that capture evidence of student growth.”
As a measure of school quality, standardized tests must be only one of a comprehensive set of indicators.
The board says schools ought to spend less time on testing, which in recent years has consumed an ever-increasing share of classroom time.
Evaluations of teachers, principals and schools must be valid, not based on specious measurements, such as pass rates, and must take into account factors outside the school, such as poverty and the resources available to individual schools. Also, arbitrary cut-offs between passing and failing ought to be abandoned.
The state board has asked Vermont’s education secretary to examine the state’s school accountability systems and to develop “multiple forms of assessment” based on “qualitative” criteria. Further, the board urges Congress, the Obama administration and other states to change policy, reducing testing mandates and promoting diverse measurements.
With this resolution, the state board and the Shumlin administration are seeking to effect an about-face in the nation’s educational policy, moving away from the misguided methods of No Child Left Behind and toward policies that are “qualitative” rather than quantitative.
Teachers, administrators and parents have complained for years that the overemphasis on standardized tests has reduced education to a numbers game. The effects have been many and deleterious. At its worst, it has led to the corruption of education in schools where teachers have cheated by altering test scores. More commonly it has persuaded schools that they must teach to the test; that is, they must emphasize subjects that are tested at the expense of other subject areas.
By taking into account the whole student, the state board acknowledges that education is a rich, diverse, shaded, complicated endeavor that no standardized test can measure fully. The board’s resolution acknowledges the ways that standardized tests are useful in providing a limited snapshot of a school at a particular point in time. But it hopes to encourage measurements of student performance that recognize the humanity of the student and of the educational enterprise. The achievements of the cellist, the poet, the history buff, the technology nerd must be recognized, and also the atmosphere of the schools that encourage them.
The board also hopes to improve education by reducing the time and resources devoted to testing itself. Days spent testing are not spent learning.
The board’s resolution represents a bold new direction. The education secretary, Rebecca Holcombe, is now an appointee of the governor, and the board is an appointed advisory body that helps to chart the direction of education in the state. It is a welcome innovation that the board’s resolution takes into account external factors such as lack of resources and poverty in communities. It has been an absurdity of the federal law that schools have been forced to bow to the illusory notion that all schools and all students must succeed, even as they are starved of resources and even as their neighborhoods are robbed of jobs or plagued by drugs.
There is no way to avoid the human in the educational process, including the process of evaluation. Standardized tests have been based on a pseudo-scientific faith that numbers can reflect the complex processes taking place in our schools. Let’s hope that the Vermont resolution gains notice far and wide.
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