The Testing Frenzy: Buyer Beware

No responsible educator would argue that student assessment is unnecessary, but assessment in the United States has taken on a corporate life of its own. Regrettably, publishing companies that represent a billion-dollar-a-year industry have been seducing the US public into believing that national standards and high-stakes tests (including Common Core state tests) are necessary for improving teaching and learning and for making classroom teachers and school administrators accountable for students’ achievement.

Worse, while creating this national culture of testing, the publishers have been encouraging both Republicans and Democrats to “buy into” this profitable farce by doing extensive lobbying in Congress. Among the many big corporations, influential foundations and powerful lobbyists that are pushing their agendas are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, MacGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and UK-based Pearson.

The sad but realistic commentary of informed educators is that these corporate groups “own” schools and state education departments nationwide. Mercedes Schneider, the author of Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, ties Pearson to Common Core with a money belt. She notes that in 2009, Pearson’s nonprofit arm, the Pearson Charitable Foundation (PCF), gave a grant of $100,000 to the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), one of two organizations that own the Common Core license. In the next three years, CCSSO received two additional grants from PCF, one for $340,000 and another for $100,000. In May 2014 blog post, Schneider wrote: “Pearson is expected to perform a broad range of duties under the contract, including development of test items, delivery of paper-and-pencil computerized test forms, reporting of results, and analysis of scores.”

Furthermore, many publishers have been misleading the US public by advertising their core instructional programs as evidenced-based, with strong potential for improving reading achievement and increasing high-stakes test results. Other than Reading Recovery, a program aimed at early intervention for struggling first-grade readers, no other core reading program exists that is supported by reliable research, according to What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), an initiative of the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. WWC collects, screens and identifies studies of effectiveness of educational interventions. Publishers’ usual advertising strategy is to make unsubstantiated statements that a company’s core reading program is research-based, when in fact it is not.

In a well-organized and sustained attacked on public schools, publishers have been extremely effective in promoting a national dependence on their standards, their high-stakes tests and their core instructional resources. While this corporate direction has benefited the money-makers, it has distorted teaching and learning and has not resulted in significant student achievement.

Advocates for high-stakes tests, including the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and related paraphernalia, might argue that more time is needed to determine the worth of these efforts. Perhaps, but time is usually not on the side of innovation. Educational innovations and initiatives often produce their biggest “pop” in the earlier rather than the later stages of implementation. For example, in the Brookings Institution’s Measuring Effects of the Common Core: Part II of the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education, Tom Loveless noted Kentucky was one of the earliest states to implement CCSS. In both 2009-2011 and 2011-2013, however, Kentucky’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth grade reading score declined. Although Loveless did not claim a causal relationship between CCSS and students’ lower scores, he concluded, “The optimism of CCSS supporters is understandable,” and theorized “A one and a half point NAEP gain might be as good as it gets for the CCSS.”

Our analysis of high-stakes tests and commercially produced core materials leads us to conclude that educational practitioners and policymakers must be extremely selective when deciding on assessment and instructional practices that will benefit students’ growth and development. High-stakes tests (including Common Core state tests) are more likely to be effective when they are administered every two or three years, not annually, for the purpose of determining general trends in achievement at the state and local levels. They are ineffective as standard guides at the national level because some states – most recently, Ohio and Arkansas – use different criteria to determine students’ proficiency. These assessments should also be shortened, which is currently happening in New York State, where 20 percent of eligible children opted out of the 2014-2015 administration of these unpopular tests. Regrettably, these tests are also limited in scope, as they usually focus on English language arts and mathematics to the preclusion of science, social studies and other curricular areas in which students benefit from opportunities to engage in hands-on projects. As experienced educators are fully aware, what doesn’t get tested doesn’t get taught.

While schools in the United States are drowning in the high-stakes testing frenzy, we must develop the courage and conviction to refocus our commitment to educate the whole child. This includes nourishing individual talents, supporting imaginative and creative growth and balancing children’s emotional, social and academic lives as equitable priorities. We also must refocus our energy on educating the minds we need in the future. Howard Gardner of Harvard University believes deeply in cultivating an ethical mind, a respectful mind, a creative mind, a synthesizing mind and a disciplined mind. Complementing this thoughtful stance is the caring perspective of the late Elliot Eisner of the Stanford Graduate School of Education: “To neglect the social and emotional aspects of their development, to focus all our attention on measured academic performance, is to blind us to these youngsters’ need to live a satisfying life.” These reflections are especially pertinent today because according to the Southern Education Foundation, the (new) majority of public school students nationwide (51 percent) are from low-income families and require a sensitive response to their unique demography. Indeed, a narrow view of children’s “big-picture” needs will inevitably chip away at the wholeness of children and contribute to their unfulfilled and discontented lives.