A High-Stakes Test for High-Stakes Tests

As both Paul Glastris and Robert Rothman noted in earlier contributions to the Washington Monthly’s May/June special report on education reform, the country is about to undertake a vasty under-reported leap into the void on efforts to improve public education via higher standards and better assessments.

In a third article for the special report, “A Test Worth Teaching To,” Education Sector’s Susan Headden provides a comprehensive history of the use of “high-stakes tests” for assessment of K-12 education in the United States, and a detailed look at the new tests being developed by two state-backed consortia for adoption in conjunction with the new system of “common core standards.” My own major takeaway from Headden’s valuable piece is that the success or failure of the new testing regime could come down to money: will the states come up with the funds necessary to deploy, score, and utilize the new, technologically more sophisticated “deeper” tests keyed to higher English and math standards, or will the habit of testing-on-the-cheap that has given us the current batch of unsatisfactory high-stakes tests prevail?

This could be the threshold issue states must cross before they consider the exciting possibilities for vastly more meaningful assessments that Headden explores, particularly the ability to go beyond pass/fail assessments of student competency that don’t really tell teachers where an individual student needs or doesn’t need help. Although the fiscal picture in most states is slowly improving lately, they could face new burdens if the federal government pursues the Ryan budget’s path of radical reductions in federal-state programs. Morever, even though nearly all the states are committed to the common core standards process and the more sophisticated (and expensive) tests needed to implement it, the long-standing conservative ambivalence towards common standards and towards public education itself could easily undermine the highly coordinated steps involved in making the new system effective.

Though Headden is optimistic that the education system may finally be on the brink of using “a test worth teaching to”–just two years from now–it’s clear the new batch of high-stakes tests must survive a test of their own. And yes, the stakes are very high, not least for an education reform “movement” that has generated as much bipartisan controversy as bipartisan support.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.