Time to move beyond test-focused policies

An anti-testing backlash has emerged among parents in the US demanding changes to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). 

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The NCLB  Act

NCLB supports standards-based education reform based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states must give these assessments to all students at select grade levels. The Act does not assert a national achievement standard. Each individual state develops its own standards. NCLB expanded the federal role in public education through annual testing, annual academic progress, report cards, teacher qualifications, and funding changes.

Yet, as a new National Education Policy Center Policy Memo published today points out, the mistakes in NCLB are still being repeated, and lawmakers’ discussions in Washington, D.C., surrounding reauthorization of the law are failing to adjust course.

Tests are ineffective and counterproductive when used to drive educational reform

NCLB was “an ineffective solution to some very real problems,” according to the new NEPC Policy Memo. The memo discusses the broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform. “The problem is not how to do testing correctly. In fact, today’s standardized assessments are probably the best they’ve ever been. The problem is a system that favors a largely automated accounting of a narrow slice of students’ capacity and then attaches huge consequences to that limited information. Testing used as a diagnostic or summary instrument for children’s learning can be a helpful tool. It is harmful, however, to use students’ test scores as a lever to drive educational improvement. This use of testing is ill-advised because it has demonstrably failed to achieve its intended goal, and it has potent negative, unintended consequences.

Thirteen NCLB years of intense focus on test-score improvement has yielded few if any benefits. Yet negative, unintended consequences have continued to mount—in the form of narrowed and less engaging curriculum, constrained instruction, and deprofessionalized teachers and teaching, the memo points out.

”We see clear trends of abandoning our past pursuit of learning that fully encompasses arts, music, social studies, and science; and we see marginalization of values and skills that help students develop the ability to cooperate, problem solve, reason, make sound judgments, and function effectively as democratic citizens.The ultimate question isn’t whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing. It is whether the overall impact of the reform approach can improve or is improving education.”

The memo points out that test scores “can be increased in lots of different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not. An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics and the arts; and if the focus of schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing.”

The NEPC Policy Memo, Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time to Move Beyond Test-Focused Policies, can be found on the NEPC website at http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/esea.

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