What do we need all of these damn standardized tests for, anyway? Shouldn’t we just trust the teachers?

So wonders Greg Jouriles in an interesting piece at Education Week. And he’s got a good point:

Standardized tests are unnecessary because they rarely show what we don’t already know. Ask any teacher and she can tell you which students can read and write. That telling usually comes in the form of letter grades or evaluations that break down progress on skills. So trust the teacher. Publish grade distributions. Locally publish a compilation of evaluation reports. Release a state or national report reviewed and verified by expert evaluators with legislative oversight.

I’m fairly sympathetic to this idea. The point of all tests, after all, is to demonstrate knowledge.

Why not trust teachers to report progress of their students with measures they have?

Well, one reason might be the experience of schools in Atlanta or Washington, D.C., where teachers were found to be cheating on performance assessments, in order to report greater progress so their schools wouldn’t be shut down, and perhaps so that they could receive performance bonuses. Teachers are sometime dishonest.

Won’t teachers cheat the system without standardized tests? Well yes, of course they will, writes Jouriles. But they already do.

Given high stakes and the accompanying pressure, people will game a system. And it is all too true that grades vary widely because of four factors: a teacher’s conception of achievement, a teacher’s sense of equity and rigor, a teacher’s ability, and the composition of students.

But people are already gaming standardized testing, sometimes criminally. And, at a basic level of competency, a grade or an evaluative report would give us as much information as we now get from standardized tests.

If the point of standardized tests is to provide verification of student performance, ensure students are learning, and provide information to drive school improvement, standardized testing has been a miserable failure.

We don’t learn much from standardized testing, and we have lost a great deal by giving it so much prominence. The common core is at risk for failure, not because the standards are bad per se, but because with standardized accountability, as in so many partial reforms, we again won’t get a real picture of achievement.

We should acknowledge, Jouriles suggests, that some teachers are going to try to cheat. This will always be true. But there’s some dishonesty involved whether we evaluate using norm-referenced standardized tests or normal evaluations tied to expectations of student work. “Teachers are more likely to respond to professional development and accountability,” Jouriles writes, if such things are “more concretely connected to their daily work. They are more likely to improve.” This makes sense.

This is important think of how cheating real works here. Cheating for adults seems to work the same way it does for kids.

If the evaluation systems are easy to cheat, unconnected to the day-to-day expectations of learning, and are the sort of things that can result in great rewards from deception, well what should we expect to happen?

If, however, we evaluate teachers using close observation of the classroom, monitoring student work, and providing them with real, achievable expectations, they’ll probably cheat less.

More importantly, they’ll probably become better teachers.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer