The chief problem with U.S. schools apparently isn’t high dropout rates or underqualified teachers but standardized testing. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the push by parents and teachers in Buffalo, Philadelphia, Seattle and elsewhere to help students opt out of taking standardized tests.
Members of this burgeoning anti-test movement fail to grasp testing’s valuable role in motivating and guiding students and teachers. Preparing young Americans for success in the global economy will require our schools to improve, not abolish, academic standards.
Opponents of standardized tests typically rely on three basic arguments.
First, they contend that these exams detract from the larger goals of education by encouraging teachers to “teach the test.”
In a certain sense, however, teaching the test is the whole point. Exams are instruments for measuring student proficiency. And, as I’ve learned during my career in the business world, measuring something is often the best way to maximize or improve it. Economist Dan Ariely of Duke University has said: “CEOs care about stock value because that’s how we measure them. If we want to change what they care about, we should change what we measure.”
If an exam effectively gauges a student’s mastery of U.S. history or English grammar, then teaching the test is simply a matter of helping students develop that knowledge. Teachers who feel that a test ignores something essential should commit to fixing the test, not condemning the entire practice of testing.
Another oft-heard argument is that standardized tests drive educators to cheat. Teachers and administrators in the Atlanta public school system, for instance, were indicted this year in an alleged scheme of inflating their students’ test scores to avoid sanctions and secure performance-based bonuses. Not surprisingly, some education advocates were quick to blame the scandal on the tests themselves.
It should be noted that most teachers are honest, dedicated professionals. But even if this sort of fraud were rampant, it would be absurd to fault standardized tests. As Thomas J. Kane, director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, noted this spring, such a reaction would “be equivalent to saying ‘O.K., because there are some players that cheated in Major League Baseball, we should stop keeping score, because that only encourages people to take steroids.’ ”
The third argument is that high-stakes testing places too much pressure on students. This objection is not without some merit. Having visited schools in other countries where a single five-day examination can determine a student’s future, I understand how tests can sometimes constitute cruel and unusual punishment. But surely there is a sensible middle ground between such brutal practices and full-scale abandonment of standardized testing.
Finding that middle ground has never been more important, as U.S. students continue to fall far behind their international peers. In its most recent report, the World Economic Forum ranked U.S. math and science education 52nd in the world. A 2009 evaluation of students in 34 developed nations found that U.S. 15-year-olds were outperformed in science by students from 12 countries. The results were worse in math: Students in 17 countries outperformed U.S. students.
To address U.S. students’ international achievement gap, the National Governors Association, in partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonpartisan organization of public school officials, helped create a set of nationwide achievement goals known as the Common Core State Standards. These voluntary benchmarks in English language arts and math reflect what young Americans will need to know if they are to compete with students from China, Singapore, Finland, South Korea and elsewhere.
Instead of speaking out against the Common Core, critics of standardized testing should see this reform effort as an opportunity to make testing better. Educators have an indispensable role in creating tests that do justice to student achievement while rewarding skilled teachers.
Raising standards should be the primary goal of education reform. Those who argue against standardized testing are not only misguided but are also leading U.S. schools and students in precisely the wrong direction.
Norman R. Augustine is chairman of the National Academies’ congressionally mandated review of U.S. competitiveness. He is a former chairman and chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp.