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Research & Resources

Testing, Testing

Thomas R. Rosebrough, Ph.D., Executive Dean, College of Education and Human Studies & University Professor of Education

November 27, 2002 - One of the more interesting elements of the testing debate is that virtually no school administrator, state education official, teacher educator, or teacher that I know disagrees that our children are being tested too much. This is not an issue of rigor or high standards. No effective educator debates the value of achievement-oriented classrooms and schools. But teachers and school officials see the effects of the testing craze firsthand: teachers leaving the profession, principals taking early retirement, students being taught with lock-step methods to ensure better test scores, students dropping out. The most accurate description of their attitudes is disheartened resignation. In other words, the very people who are in a position and have the experience to have the most knowledge about this subject are the ones who are least listened to or who have the least authority to change the situation. Or, to say it as renowned educator Alfie Cohen says it, people with little understanding of how children learn have imposed a heavy-handed, top-down, test-driven version of school reform that is lowering the quality of education in this country.

The very best teachers are the ones who enjoy going to work each day so that they can exercise their creativity, motivate their students, make curriculum decisions based on criteria that assist optimum learning, and interact with their colleagues. Unfortunately, these are not the kind of teachers who enjoy the current environment of accountability-run-amuck and schools as biggie-sized test-prep centers.

To paraphrase the late historian, Stephen Ambrose, surely our uniqueness as a country of universal education, women’s rights, freedom of religion, democracy, openness to all ethnic groups, and more, can transcend this current national political obsession with over-testing our children. Surely in the name of common sense and quality education we can admit our errors, correct them, and create quality school environments that confront the achievement gap crisis in our schools.

The historic No Child Left Behind Act signed by President Bush last year is designed to focus on and deal with the widening gap in student achievement between students from high and low poverty areas. NCLB had strong bi-partisan support in the Congress of the United States and its main tenets were advocated by both presidential candidates in 2000. Student performance scores compiled from the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) show a 40-point gap in reading scores and a 29-point gap in math scores among nine-year-olds in the highest-poverty and low-poverty schools. This differential amounts to an educational crisis in a country that is committed to public education and equal opportunity. The question is and has been, “How can we confront this crisis?”

Closing the achievement gap and increasing accountability are the twin goals of NCLB. To meet these goals, the federal government, with its considerable economic clout, seeks “to reward success and sanction failure.” Rewarding and sanctioning are certainly within the federal government’s power when we realize that Tennessee receives more than $745 million annually from this new law, which is $83 million above last year’s level according to State Department of Education figures. While there is no doubt that federal funds are needed to support our ailing schools, this money has a price. The price is power which may be comforting to some but alarming to others. It is apparent from reading the Constitution, for example, that authority over education is to be a state and local matter. The 10th Amendment cedes all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government to be state powers, and education was not specifically delegated. Indeed, America has long enjoyed the freedom of local control of education via state government, county commissions, and local school boards. Our founding fathers were wary of too much concentrated federal authority over education.

Through NCLB the U.S. Department of Education is depending upon SEA’s (State Educational Agencies) to implement this act and to hold their LEA’s (Local Educational Agencies) accountable. The LEA’s are then expected to hold their schools accountable for results. And, the most important element in this accountability structure is the new testing requirements.

Tennessee already has implemented standardized tests, mandated by the Tennessee legislature, based on state standards for grades 2-8 known as TCAP’s (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program). These exams are given annually, as a rite of spring in the schools, in the core subjects. TCAP writing tests are also given annually in grades 5, 8, and 11. In addition, the state of Tennessee has mandated the Gateway tests, which began in 2001, for students entering 9th grade in algebra, biology, and English. All of the current tests are basically normative in nature; i.e., one student’s score is compared to another student’s score or one school’s score is compared to another school’s score. A vital factor is how much a student or school has progressed during a school year (hence the term, “value-added”).

The Federal mandate is for more tests based on standards to augment the state tests. NCLB requires annual state assessments in reading and math for grades 3-8 by 2005-6. These tests will primarily assess how well each student is learning according to certain established standards or criteria. And then, beginning in 2007-8, states will also be required to administer science examinations. And, “No Child Left Behind” also requires a NAEP test, as a “snapshot” of progress, every two years in reading and math for a sample of 4th and 8th graders. By now it is obvious to us: NCLB is misnamed--this act should be called ECWT (Every Child Well-Tested). Or perhaps, the Let’s-Make-Certain-That-Every-Teacher-Teaches-To-The-Test Act. Or, the Let’s-Kill-The-Fun-Of-Teaching-And-Learning Act. In Michigan, several school districts are inviting local residents to take a shortened version of the MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) test. The MEAP gauges achievement in grades 4, 5, 7, 8, and 11 in reading, writing, math, and science. Instead of the 8-hour exams students must endure, however, adults will be tested for only an hour. Many will be surprised at their results.

This article appeared in The Jackson Sun on Sunday, November 24, 2002.

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