Thoughts on what everyone hates talking about (testing)

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No one wants to talk about testing except the people that want to get rid of it.  Which leaves the field of debate on a critical aspect of education reform in pretty partial hands.

Above all other states, Massachusetts should understand the important role of standardized testing.

Former Senate President Tom Birmingham, chief architect of the state’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act (ERA) has noted that in 1992 the sole state-imposed graduation requirements were “one year of American history and four years of gym.  The “absence of a comprehensive statewide system of standards,” he continued, “imposed real hardships on poor and minority school districts” given “society’s low expectations as to what their kids could learn.”

The ERA changed all that, leading to the development of world-class academic standards in English, mathematics and science, together with testing.  Unlike what we had seen before — where poorer districts were treated to easier reading texts and lower-level math — all children in the commonwealth were now given access to crucial elements of a strong liberal arts education.  The law translated into among the nation’s largest gains in student performance—for all students.  In 1993, Massachusetts stood in 11th place in the country on national assessments.  Since 2005, Massachusetts has outperformed every other state on national assessments. Since 2007, when Massachusetts competed as its own country in international math and science testing, the Commonwealth has been among the world’s highest performing nations in 4th and 8th grade math and science.

The clearest case for testing comes from a subject where the law’s requirement for testing was ignored by Massachusetts policymakers—U.S. History.  On the civics portion of the 2010 national assessment, only seven percent of America’s eighth graders correctly identified the three branches of our government.  Massachusetts is no exception in that dismal outcome.

There are today problems with testing, and they largely stem from federal impositions of one-size-fits-all policies.  Massachusetts’ 1993 law required standardized testing but not in all subjects in each year.  The Bush administration’s 2001 No Child Left Behind law and the Obama administration’s Common Core policies have reduced state autonomy over standards, curriculum and testing. Today, federally funded testing consortia (PARCC in Massachusetts) have expanded testing beyond the appropriate and reasonable balance that was struck in Massachusetts.

There are of course other issues associated with testing as it is done in Massachusetts today, including the March to May period for the tests and the time it takes to get the results back.  To be fair to teachers, and to represent the value of the work they have done with students, we need to make every effort to push the tests to late May or even mid-June.  As for the results, there is little benefit to parents when the results come back half a year later.  The fact is that parents will make an effort to address areas where their children need to improve – and the summer is a great time to do that.  Missing that window of opportunity is inexcusable.

And the MCAS can and should be improved.  The frequency, the timing of the test and the distribution of results, as well as ways to improve the test should all be debated.  But the value of standardized tests is only a matter up for debate among a rarefied and self-interested group of individuals who have a very short memory. We’re not going back to one year of history and four years of gym.

Good policy requires thoughtful definition of a high-quality liberal arts education and consideration of equity for all students, accountability for results, and impacts on the classroom.  Evidence suggests Massachusetts should fulfill the promise made in 1993 and test US History instruction, but jealously guard its autonomy over policy in an age when the federal government is stoking a testing frenzy.  It also suggests that the state should not be ashamed to push back at federal policy mandates wherever we, as a national leader in education reform, believe we can do better.

Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.