Beyond the Opt-Out

Faced with an overwhelming amount of standardized testing, many parents across the country are making the decision to opt out of some standardized tests, and just let the kids stay home for the day. Recently the entire junior class at one Seattle high school declined to take the state’s standardized tests this year.

I have some sympathy for these parents and students. Since many of the tests aren’t so good, it’s not really clear the students benefit at all from taking such tests. But the move is just a reaction to the problem, not an actual solution.

Merely opting out of the tests won’t fix the problem. Indeed, because other students will still show up to take the tests, the currently education plans—in which decisions about teacher tenure, academic promotion, and school funding—will proceed along more or less as before, except that schools won’t have enough data to be able to make decisions in any reasonably informed way.

But there might be a good way.

Kristina Rizga points out over at Mother Jones that decades of increasing standardized testing have failed to accomplish their ostensible goal: to helping eliminate the achievement gap between race and class in this country. Indeed, they’ve gotten worse.

What might work better is, well, actually teaching better. Rizga writes about one San Francisco high school:

Mission had rock-bottom test scores and was targeted by the district for “reconstitution.” The principal was removed and half the teachers were reassigned. Yet in 2001, the school once again had some of the lowest test scores and attendance rates among all of San Francisco’s high schools, and more teachers were leaving it than almost any other school in the district.

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And so it decided to try something else.

Instead of bringing in consultants, it mobilized a small group of teachers…. It increased paid time for them to plan lessons together, design assessments, and analyze outcomes. They read research about how integrated classes, personalized teaching, and culturally relevant curriculum increased achievement. They asked successful teachers to coach colleagues.

They look at achievement gaps, attendance, referrals, graduation rates, and test scores. They also walk through classrooms, delve into student work, and interview teachers and students. One year, social studies teachers discovered that too many students didn’t fully grasp the difference between summarizing a text versus analyzing it, so they spent the next year building more opportunities to practice those skills. The math department, meanwhile, focused on one-on-one coaching to help set up effective group work.

And it seems mostly to have worked:

The school does well on a bevy of other metrics, as well. The graduation rate went from among the lowest in the district, at 60 percent, to 82 percent; the graduation rate for African American students was 20 percent higher than the district average that year. Even though close to 40 percent of students are English learners and 75 percent are poor, college enrollment rose from 55 percent in 2007 to 74 percent by 2013. Suspensions plummeted, and in the annual student and parent satisfaction survey from 2013, close to 90 percent said they liked the school and would recommend it to others.

This is unlikely to become the norm across the country. While it seems to be a really, really effective model, the school still has many struggles. Plus, it’s really difficult to make serious, existential reforms like this. Consultants can’t just impose it from outside. While it’s possible to “scale” this sort of thing up, it can’t be done quickly and entirely systemically.

But it does seem a lot more effective than standardized tests. The next time someone bemoans the continuing low achievement in this country let’s keep this in mind.

According to the article American third- to eighth-graders take an average 10 standardized tests each year. Students in higher performing countries very rarely have standardized tests and mostly have have only real evaluations: “Students in England, New Zealand, and Singapore are also evaluated through projects like presentations, science investigations, and collaborative assignments.” These sorts of examinations are “designed to both mimic what professionals do in the real world and provide data on what students are learning.”

The reason we can’t close the achievement gap in this country is because the only thing we’re doing to close the achievement gap—more standardized testing—isn’t really all that good and getting students to learn and retain information. It’s not a mystery.

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