Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Losing Ground: How an obsessive testing culture hurts American schools

Part one of a three-part series on America’s testing culture and its impacts on education.


Photo: midnight_peace90 via Flickr Creative Commons

American students collectively spend millions of hours taking tests that are supposed to evaluate  their performance and progress, as well as that of their teacher and school. But America’s obsession with standardized testing may be distracting policymakers from considering evidence-based reforms that could reestablish America as a leader in world-class education.

Concerns about standardized tests aren’t new – segments of students have long been disadvantaged by them. For example, last year a complaint filed by the NAACP with the US Education Department charged that New York City’s specialized high school admissions test is in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The test, which is used to place high-performing students into the city’s selective high schools, resulted in disproportionately low scores for black and Hispanic students. In fact, despite the city’s schools being 70 percent black or Hispanic, only 19 black students were offered seats in the most competitive school’s freshman class of 967.

The NAACP is arguing for an alternative testing policy “that is nondiscriminatory and fair to all students.” Racial bias in testing and other educational programs has huge impacts on student success. A recent study showed that the achievement gap between rich and poor students has grown by 60 percent since the 1960’s and disproportionately affects students of color.

But the questions about testing go beyond racial bias. In a testimony given late last year to the state’s Education Commission, New York high school principal Carol Burris questioned the effectiveness of standardized testing overall:

The obsession with test based evaluations of students, schools and teachers is tearing the schools we love apart. Something is very wrong when nine year olds sit for tests that are longer than the SAT and the Graduate Record Examination combined. Something is wrong when policymakers contemplate tests for kindergarteners to predict whether they are on the path to college readiness. Something is wrong when my students must take a pre-test comprised of Regents Physics questions BEFORE they have taken the course, so that their teachers can be evaluated.

Teachers, parents, and even students are starting to push back against excessive testing. Rather than participating in these high-stakes exams, some parents are refusing to participate by keeping their kids home from schools on examination dates. In Seattle earlier this year, hundreds of public school teachers, parents and students protested the district-wide MAP test because of the burden it placed on classrooms. The district chose to back down from the test months later.

As US schools have fallen behind our global peers, punishing teachers and cutting funding have been the main tactics used by so-called education “reformers” to fix the system. But maybe America’s testing culture is actually at fault. Some of the world’s highest-performing students are also those tested least. Finnish students take only one mandatory standardized test, at age 16 – yet Finland’s test scores top global charts. Which raises the question of whether America’s current approach to testing hurts the people we’re trying to help most, namely, students?

In the next post of this series, I’ll address how teachers are negatively impacted by America’s testing culture and how that ultimately hurts our schools.

By EOI Intern Bill Dow

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