Debunking the demonizers of student testing

An op-ed by Cleveland State University education professor Karl Wheatley in the August 9 Cleveland Plain Dealer argues that the pursuit of improved student achievement in our public schools is largely a waste of time (see here). Wheatley's reasons range from absurd to insulting, especially toward those Ohio children who have been denied an excellent education and whose life prospects dim each time we make ridiculous excuses on behalf of failing schools. He believes that those of us who pursue higher standards "clearly do not understand education well enough to craft wise policy." But he does not explain how a de-emphasis on standardized testing would benefit students in his home district of Cleveland, 84 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. Given that Wheatley's attitudes against student testing are unfortunately common, it is important to dissect each of these arguments in turn.

First, Wheatley argues that ending the pursuit of "student achievement" would save "billions of dollars a year." Certainly, the creation and implementation of standardized tests costs money. But it doesn't cost nearly as much as the achievement gap between black and Latino students and white students which cost the United States an estimated $310 billion to $525 billion annually (see here). This represents between two and four percent of national GDP. How can America close this insidious gap without diagnosing it first? It can't.

Another problem, according to Wheatey, is that striving for better student achievement is a guise for merely "chasing higher test scores." Further, he writes that this is motivated by "politicians and CEOs [who] want America to be No. 1." For starters, student achievement has to be measured by something. Although there's always a risk that testing will create perverse incentives, this can only be ameliorated-never fully overcome. Test scores are necessary to illustrate what students do and do not know; further, they keep schools and teachers accountable. As far as Wheatley's latter claim, the portrait of self-interested policymakers seeking to improve our global competitiveness is nonsensical. Many policymakers care deeply about advancing educational opportunities for those disproportionate numbers of low-income, minority students who have been systematically denied excellence.

The third argument is that test scores are not a great predictor of economic or life success, and Wheatley uses the canard of IQ scores to illustrate his point. Standardized tests (like the Ohio Achievement Tests) are not measures of natural aptitude. Rather, they gauge a student's learning of core content standards. A student's ability to master core curriculum content standards can decently predict his/her likelihood to succeed in life, as it reflects the ability to read, write, understand basic math, and graduate with a high-school diploma.

The economic returns to academic achievement as measured by standardized test scores are indisputable. As the economist Eric Hanushek and lawyer Alfred Lindseth show in their book Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses (see here), a worker who finishes high school will earn almost 30 percent more than a high-school dropout; college goers will earn 54 to 63 percent more, and those with college degrees will earn 125 percent more over the course of a lifetime. Furthermore, for low-income and minority students, high academic achievement and college access is often the only way to break generational cycles of poverty.

The notion that academic achievement (measured by test scores or otherwise) is irrelevant to life opportunities is not only absurd but dangerous. Children with low test scores are, simply, less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to go to college, and less likely to be productive members of society.

The most glaring of Wheatley's flawed arguments is his contradiction that testing is bad because it doesn't focus on soft skills like teamwork, personal management, and creativity. Even if we shifted toward teaching those "skills" in lieu of core content (reading, math, science, and history), how would we know that students are progressing appropriately unless we assessed their learning? Regardless of what schools teach, that content has to be tested somehow in order for us to know that students are learning it and that teachers are teaching it. Furthermore, no one is arguing that self-sufficiency and creativity are not important. But they aren't going to be that useful if students reach high school reading at a sixth-grade level and still can't tell time on an analog clock.

Wheatley also claims that testing creates "collateral damage" such as motivation problems for students and teachers, scripted instruction, and even mental health problems. While standardized testing can have unintended consequences, it is the way the testing is implemented (think "drill and kill"), and not the testing itself  that is to blame. And can't one argue that testing has collateral benefits as well? How else could we diagnose a child's learning disability or shed light on achievement gaps between groups of students and schools?

Finally, Wheatley gives in to the temptation to compare the U.S. to other countries and laments that America is going the wrong way. Finland, he says, does not have testing but still has an excellent education system. True, but one in five Finnish children is not living in poverty and receiving an inadequate education. And few countries, if any, enable the level of social mobility that can occur in America as a result of an excellent education.

Those of us who advocate for higher academic standards (and standardized tests aligned to them) most often are motivated out of a sense of social justice. Too many children growing up in Cleveland are not receiving the quality of education that they deserve, and it is only through quality academic performance data that we are able to diagnose learning problems or school failure and take action to address them. Ohioans should not be upset with testing; they should be outraged by the fact that only 10 percent of Cleveland's fourth graders were proficient in mathematics according to the 2007 NAEP, and a woeful eight percent were proficient readers (see here). Testing is not the enemy. Let's stop making excuses.

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