Has Testing Reached a Tipping Point?

February 1, 2013

(This article also appeared on the SmartBlog on Education.)

It wasn’t that long ago that suggesting America’s schools had become test-obsessed was a lonely endeavor.  Although organizations like FairTest and campaigns like Time Out From Testing have been decrying the flawed logic behind high-stakes tests for years, the reality is that for the past decade, many of us kept our complaints reserved for the privacy of the parking lot

People vented. Policymakers nodded. And absent any real noise, the tests continued.

In 2008, however, the election of Barack Obama seemed to augur a new era. All along the campaign trail, the Illinois Senator suggested a clear understanding of the ways a single measure of success can distort an entire system and narrow the learning opportunities for children. Then he made history by becoming the nation’s 44th president – and unveiling a series of education policies that further entrenched America’s reliance on reading and math scores as a proxy for whole-school evaluation.

Again, the people vented. But this time, policymakers have been unable to ignore a groundswell of noise and resistance, leading many to wonder: Has a tipping point been reached? Are we witnessing the early signs of a sea change in how we think about the best ways to measure student learning and growth?

Consider three separate data points as evidence: Maryland, where the superintendent of the state’s largest district of schools has called for a three-year moratorium on standardized tests; Washington, where one school’s decision to boycott its state tests has spread to other schools and communities; and Texas, where a proposed Senate bill would significantly reduce the number of state standardized tests students must pass to graduate.

In all three places – and many more across the country – what’s changed is a growing willingness to publicly acknowledge what FairTest has argued for years: that tests do not align well with the latest research into how people learn; that they prevent adults from measuring higher-level thinking in children; and, most importantly, that there are better ways to evaluate student learning and growth.

The breadth of these mini-rebellions – from the Pacific Northwest to the Lone Star State – suggests that the unwillingness of the Obama administration to plot a new course for the country has awakened a latent frustration among educators, who are desperate to see systems that value more than incremental academic growth. As Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua Starr put it, policymakers need to “stop the insanity” of evaluating teachers via a formula that is based on “bad science.” Starr’s critique was echoed by Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian. “We’ve been raising our voices about this deeply flawed test for a long time,” he said. But now that the district is using it for evaluations, “we’ve drawn our line in the sand.” And then there’s Texas education commissioner Robert Scott, who has decried the ways student testing had become a “perversion of its original intent,” and promised he would do whatever he could to “reel it back” in the future.

To be sure, the American test obsession still has a firm hold on our collective psyche, and with Common Core assessments around the corner, we’re a long ways off from the Finnish model – in which there are no national tests and all student assessments are devised and administered locally by teachers. But what seems equally clear is that a new sort of idea virus is gaining strength in education circles. And as Malcolm Gladwell explained in The Tipping Point, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do. When we’re trying to make an idea or attitude or product tip, we’re trying to change our audience in some small yet critical respect: we’re trying to infect them, sweep them up in our epidemic, convert them from hostility to acceptance.”

To convert their opponents from hostility to acceptance, educators will need to clarify more than what they’re against; they’ll also need to propose specific and realistic alternatives. Josh Starr is off to a good start: he proposes creating assessments for Common Core-aligned curriculum by crowdsourcing their development and letting teachers design them – rather than the private companies. And the good news is there are other big ideas out there, and other places where effective alternatives to standardized testing already exist.

Perhaps, then, 2013 will finally be the year that educators end a decade of test obsession – and bring the noise.

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Sam Chaltain

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Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and education activist. He works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create healthy, high-functioning learning environments.  Earlier in his career he taught high school English and History in the NYC public...