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). 


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.

Ofsted reforms education inspection

Ofsted has today confirmed some of the most significant changes to the inspection of education in its history, following an extensive programme of public consultation.

Setting out the reforms, Ofsted’s National Director of Schools, Sean Harford, said that frequent but shorter inspections of good schools and further education and skills providers, introducing a common inspection framework to standardise the approach to all education inspections, and inspecting all non-association independent schools in the next three years will contribute to driving up educational standards across the country.

Commenting on the publication of ‘Better inspection for all’, a report on the responses to the consultation, Sean said:

“In recent years, we have seen encouraging improvements in schools and colleges across the country. Ofsted has played a critical role in challenging the education system to do better and it is clear that many leaders and teachers have responded to that challenge very positively. The changes we are confirming today are designed to ensure that standards continue to improve.“

Frequent but shorter inspections

Almost 70% of respondents supported Ofsted’s first key proposal for frequent, but shorter, inspections of good maintained schools and academies, with over 60% supporting the proposal for further and education and skills providers. As a result, from September Ofsted will inspect good schools and further education and skills providers approximately once every three years, meaning that signs of decline can be spotted early and the necessary action taken. The focus of these inspections will be on ensuring that good standards are being maintained, that leaders have identified key areas of concern and that they have the capacity to address them. Frequent but shorter inspections will also mean that parents and employers can be kept much better informed.

Common approach in order to compare schools

The second change, supported by nearly 80% of respondents, will see a common approach taken to all education inspections from September 2015. This will ensure even greater consistency in inspections and will make it much easier for parents, pupils, learners and employers to compare different providers and make more informed choices.

The Common Inspection Framework will ensure a consistent approach to Ofsted inspections. It will focus on keeping young people safe, the breadth of the curriculum in schools, the relevance of courses and training in further education and skills, and the quality of early learning.

Alongside the changes to inspection, Ofsted is making significant changes to the way it contracts with, trains and manages inspectors. Ofsted is determined to recruit and retain inspectors of the highest calibre to carry out inspections using the new framework. They have tightened up their selection criteria and quality assurance procedures. All contracted Ofsted Inspectors will have to go through a stringent assessment process and assessed training, with clear performance measures in place.

Some proposals were re-considered

In some cases, proposals were re-considered in light of the feedback. For example, a number of respondents questioned the feasibility of Ofsted establishing how leaders were influencing improvements beyond their own institutions, as part of its leadership and management judgement. As a result, Ofsted will not be taking this aspect of the leadership and management judgement forward.

Better inspection for all: consultation response