Over the last 30 years, the use of standardized tests in American education has proliferated and shaped K-12 educational reform in ways few Americans in the 1980s would have predicted. By contrast, the use of standardized tests in college admissions has diminished as a controversial issue, with hundreds of higher education institutions adopting test-optional admissions since the 1980s.
The controversial charge that the SAT and ACT college admission tests exhibit cultural bias against African-Americans and members of other socially disadvantaged groups has receded as a national concern; however, the more recent advent of “high-stakes testing” has become a hot-button issue for millions of families.
“I think we can generally agree that standardized tests don’t have a good reputation today — and that some of the criticism is merited,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last April during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). “Policymakers and researchers have to listen very carefully — and take very seriously the concerns of educators, parents, and students about assessment.”
Duncan’s candor last year summed up the ambivalence Americans have developed towards the use of standardized tests. In 2012, a Gallup poll found that more Americans believed the No Child Left Behind federal law worsened education than improved it, by 29 percent to 16 percent. Thirty-eight percent said the law had not made any significant difference, while 17 percent indicated that they were not knowledgeable enough about the law to critique it or had no opinion.
Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools are required to give students annual reading and math tests in the third through eighth grades. The schools have to publish the results and disclose the scores of racial minorities, students with disabilities and low-income students. The law also has required all students become proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Duncan acknowledges that the frequent testing in schools as a result of NCLB has come under widespread criticism. “The critics contend that today’s tests fail to measure students’ abilities to analyze and apply knowledge, that they narrow the curriculum, and that they create too many perverse incentives to cheat or teach to the test,” Duncan told the AERA audience. “These critics want students and teachers to opt out of all high-stakes testing.”
In addition, critics argue that poor and minority children attending low-resource schools have had a more narrow learning experience under NCLB, with their teachers spending more time on test preparation, math and reading compared to children attending more affluent schools.
“Teachers and schools are under more pressure to do test prep and shift instructional priorities in the case of disadvantaged and minority students than they are for majority students,” says Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington.
Though Duncan has conceded that “schools today give lots of tests, sometimes too many,” he defends the use of standardized tests, particularly the forthcoming assessments connected to the Common Core State Standards adopted in recent years by 45 states and the District of Columbia.
“Standardized assessments are still a needed tool for transparency and accountability across the entire education system,” Duncan said. “We should never, ever return to the days of concealing achievement gaps with school averages, no-stakes tests, and low standards.”
A nation at risk
Standardized tests became a K-12 education policy matter when a national educational reform movement took shape in the early 1980s; the issue culminated in 2002 with the passage of NCLB.
Under President Reagan, the federal government took a different approach in establishing national education priorities compared to past administrations. The National Commission on Excellence in Education, under then-Education Secretary Terrel Bell, produced “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” the influential 1983 report that said the U.S. educational system was not meeting the national need for a globally competitive workforce.
The report, warning that American schools were failing, alarmed elected officials, corporate executives and education leaders to the point that education reform shifted from a liberal left-of-center focus on school integration and civil rights to one concerned with setting national standards and building accountability systems. With state governors and Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton joining the movement, education reform that embraced standards and accountability measures received bipartisan support during the 1980s and 1990s.
Coinciding with the rise of the standards and accountability movement, a cadre of scholars and leaders pressed policymakers to pay attention to and support policy solutions around minority student achievement. For many of these scholars, reducing and eliminating the Black-White achievement gap had become an important research and policy concern. Since the early 1970s, achievement gaps between Black and White students and Latino and White students had narrowed but not closed, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test score data.
“I got interested in test scores in the late 1980s when they predicted [from] the late teenage years the majority of the Black-White hourly wage gap among young adults,” says Dr. Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government economist and expert on the racial achievement gap.
“Test scores measure skills that employers pay for. Pretending that they don’t is just putting our heads in the sand,” adds Ferguson. “We’ve got to find ways of raising these measures of achievement.”
While working as an assistant director for academic affairs at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission from 1978 to 1984, Dr. Michael Nettles, now senior vice president and the Edmund W. Gordon Chair for Policy Evaluation & Research Center at the ETS, grew concerned about the lack of minority student data available to researchers. Finding that such information was often missing in important higher education affirmative action and university system desegregation cases, Nettles pushed for more and better data.
“I began to investigate and generate data and information that would shed some light on the possible solutions, because the court cases were full of testimony that seemed to have more anecdotal evidence than any kind of systematic national data,” says Nettles.
According to Nettles, policymakers and elected officials eventually realized that a national education accountability system would have to fully acknowledge and address racial and ethnic achievement gaps. “What became clear leading up to No Child Left Behind was that for the country to achieve [its] national goal [of] becoming first in the world in math and science for all children … the gulf between African-Americans and the rest of the population needed to be closed,” he says.
In Nettles’ estimation, NCLB’s great achievement has been its focus on inclusivity. “For the first time, [NCLB] addressed the issue of inclusion of everybody in assessment and the reporting of assessment results,” Nettles says. “And this brought to light the gaps that people care about and [NCLB] confirmed the broad gaps across population groups in the country.”
Despite high-stakes testing under NCLB receiving heavy criticism, Ferguson describes the law’s reliance on standardized tests as “a step along the path to getting [accountability] right.”
“I think No Child Left Behind is important; [educational funding contest] Race to the Top has been important,” he says. “I think attention to test scores has been important, but the balance is not right yet.” Ferguson also notes that “having people become single-mindedly focused on test scores is a mistake.”
Finding the right balance
More than a decade after NCLB’s enactment, only modest gains have been made in overall student math and reading achievement. The law, however, has not generated enough improvement for American students to meet the proficiency standards set for this year. In the past two years, however, the Obama administration has granted waivers to 39 states, exempting them from having to meet the 2014 deadline. It’s widely believed that Congress should begin working on a new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to modify NCLB.
For its part in managing federal education policy, the Obama administration has also been criticized over NCLB and its Race to the Top initiative, which is a competitive grant program to stimulate state education innovation. Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of the FairTest organization — or the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which works to end the misuses of standardized tests and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair and educationally beneficial — assailed the Education Department under Duncan for supporting “polices in the last six years that have been [the equivalent of] No Child Left Behind on steroids.”
“[The Obama administration] has doubled down on every failure of No Child Left Behind and made it worse, particularly with the so-called Race to the Top program,” says Schaeffer. “During the Bush administration, under No Child Left Behind, only schools were held accountable for student test scores,” says Rothstein. “With the Obama administration, under Race to the Top teachers are held accountable for student test scores, which increases the pressure to focus more exclusively on math and reading, and to ignore other aspects of the curriculum.”
Dr. Jason Giersch, a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says the high stakes testing experience under NCLB has proven revelatory to both the public and policymakers. In his research, Giersch has found strong evidence that school tracking practices have the potential to worsen the inequalities associated with high-stakes testing.
“A standardized test is a tool and it can be used for specific purposes,” he explains. “But if you’re trying to use it for something it’s not designed for then you may be doing more damage than good.”
Giersch adds, “The context in which we’re doing high-stakes testing is one that’s going to raise some obstacles as much as it’s going to give us opportunities.”