Testing, the Common Core, and Consumer Resistance

Cross-posted on Education Week

Some consumers, evidently, have had enough. Parents in some schools are refusing to send their children to mandated testing sessions, and we have reports of teachers refusing to proctor them. What are we to make of this?

I can think of no high-performing country we have studied in which we have seen this kind of resistance to the development of tests that we are now seeing in the United States. Why here, and now and what does it mean?

The answer lies in the history of testing in the United States, and, especially recently, how we have used our tests.

Though almost all the top-performing countries have tests that match their standards (Finland being the exception), they are unlike the typical American tests in important ways. First, they are designed to match the curriculum, to find out whether and to what degree students have mastered the curriculum the teacher has been teaching. American tests, for many years, have been designed to be curriculum neutral, meaning unrelated to the curriculum. So American teachers have seen the basic skills tests they are familiar with as their enemy, testing things that they did not necessarily teach, and often don’t believe should be taught. The Common Core State Standards were developed, in part, to fix this alignment problem, but the standards are not yet implemented and there is no official curriculum available to teachers that is based on the standards and on which the tests themselves are based, as there are in the top-performing countries. So it will not be easy to overcome an image of testing among teachers that is based on a professional lifetime of experience.

Second, American tests have been designed to be, first and foremost, cheap. A testing director for one of America’s biggest cities once told me, with great pride, that his city had never spent more then $1 per test per student per year and never would. They cost as little as they do because of the multiple-choice, computer scored method of test construction that is so prevalent. American teachers figured out a long time ago that these tests are great at testing the rudiments of the basic skills and not very good at testing complex skills, deep understanding, critical thinking or creativity, the things teachers want most to teach, another reason for them to detest the typical test. In the top-performing countries, there is very little use of multiple-choice, computer-based testing. Most tests are essay-based. They are scored by teachers trained to score them and teachers generally feel that these examinations are testing the things they think really matter.

Third, the frequency of testing is very different in the United States from our top competitors. They typically do major statewide or nationwide testing only two or three times in a student’s whole school career, usually just at the end of lower secondary school (tenth grade) and again at the end of high school. Most of the other testing they do at the statewide or national levels is done to monitor the performance of the system and is done by sampling a few students in a few schools. The testing program mandated by No Child Left Behind—calling for six grades of testing, including five consecutive grades in elementary and middle school, an enormous testing burden—has no counterpart in the top-performing countries.

Not one of the top-performing countries has an accountability system remotely like that of No Child Left Behind. No one in those countries is insisting, as the U.S. Department of Education does in its Race to the Top Program, that student scores on mandated tests be used as a major—perhaps the single most important—input into personnel decisions made about teachers.

So American teachers’ experience of testing is very different from that of their counterparts in the top-performing countries. They see cheap tests, unrelated to what they teach and incapable of measuring the things they really care about, being used to determine their fate and that of their students. What is ironic about this is that, because these other countries do much less accountability testing than we do, they can afford to spend much more on the tests they do use, and so are getting much better tests at costs that are probably no greater than what we are spending for our cheap tests.

We will have to wait and see what kind of tests will be produced by the two state testing consortia. It is rumored that they have been struggling to produce high quality tests, because they, too, are working in an environment in which schools and legislatures are not used to paying very much for good tests. We have to hope that the developers of these new tests will not fall short of the ambitions their designers had for them. If they end up looking more like the tests teachers are familiar with than the examinations the top-performing countries use, then millions of American teachers may rebel. The Congress could, of course, abandon the nation’s unwise commitment to grade-by-grade testing, which would enable this country to produce and administer tests and examinations as good as any in the world, and, at the same time, greatly reduce the testing burden on our schools. But that would mean that it would also have to abandon the current approach to school and teacher accountability in favor perhaps of accountability systems of the sort used by the top performers, but I have not yet detected any interest in doing so.

The fate of the Common Core State Standards may well depend on what this country does about testing and accountability. Maybe we should be listening to the sounds of nascent rebellion a little more closely.