The race to fix America’s broken system of standardized exams.
In America, high-caliber tests like AP exams are usually the province of elite, high-achieving students on the college track. And so you might think that this two-tier assessment system is an inevitable result of inequality—that underprivileged kids wouldn’t have a prayer on these more demanding tests. Yet the industrialized nations that consistently outshine the United States on measures of educational achievement—countries like Singapore and Australia—have used such assessments for students across the educational and socioeconomic spectrum for years. Although some are multiple-choice tests, most are made up of open-ended questions that demand extensive writing, analysis, and demonstration of sound reasoning—like AP tests. “There is no country with a consistent record of superior education performance that embraces multiple-choice, machine-scored tests to a degree remotely approaching our national obsession with this testing methodology,” says Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and an expert on testing. “They recognize that the only way to find out if a student can write a competent twenty-page history research paper is to ask that the student write one.” In other words, the kind of knowledge you can measure with a multiple-choice test is ultimately not the kind of knowledge that matters very much.
For that reason, experts have for years pleaded for the U.S. to adopt the kinds of tests that mea -sure and advance higher-order skills for all students. You won’t be surprised to hear they ’ve been frustrated. Part of the reason why they haven’t gotten their way is economic. Viewed in a certain light, “basic skills tests” are in fact just “cheaply measurable skills” tests. According to Tucker, superior assessments cost up to three times more than a typical state accountability test. Quite simply, scoring essay questions and short answers is expensive.
The other big problem is that the American testing market is fragmented. If there were some unified, standard curriculum across states—like an AP course in “What You Need to Know by the End of Third Grade”—then states would be able to pool their resources to pay for a worthwhile test they could all share, and test makers would be able to set up economies of scale, bringing prices down. The rest of the industrialized world operates much like this: countries examine their students to see how well they have mastered a certain standard nation-al curriculum. For various political reasons, we do not have a standard national curriculum. And so we have tests like the DC CAS, which establish a de facto curriculum in schools like Hart—a curriculum of “basic skills.”
Having said all that, here’s some astonishing news: quietly, over the past few years, forty-five American states plus Washington, D.C., have been working to establish something called the common core standards in math and English. While not a unified national curriculum, the common core will lay down a set of high, unified standards—rubrics that define what students should be able to know and do by, say, the end of third grade. Those standards will be enough to defragment the American testing market. With them will come a set of completely new, interactive, computerized tests that promise to be much like what you’d find in Singapore or Australia or an AP classroom—exams that test higher-order thinking by asking students to show, in a variety of different ways, whether they have mastered a set of working concepts. If this sounds like the kind of thing that might actually debut around the time we all drive electric cars, think again: these new assessments will start field testing next year, and are due to land in most American classrooms in 2014.
Most of what you know about school testing is about to change. That much is relatively certain. What remains to be seen is whether that change will be so dramatic that it overloads the current system.
American schoolchildren have been taking achievement tests for decades. In the 1950s, they used their well-sharpened number 2 pencils on some -thing called the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which is still in use and is almost exclusively multiple choice. Tests of this period were of the low-stakes variety—indeed, they usually weren’t required at all—and they were “norm referenced,” meaning that students were rated as they compared to each other. (Nancy was in the 90th percentile, Susie in the 70th, and so on.) When the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, U.S. schools came under pressure to up their game. The Elementary and Secondar y Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), the precursor to No Child Left Behind, focused federal funding on poor schools with low-achieving students. Meanwhile, there was a growing feeling among the public that all students should be striving for well-defined learning goals and be tested on that basis. Some of this demand for data on students’ achievement was met by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, popularly known as the Nation’s Report Card, which was first administered in 1969. The NAEP measured just a sampling of students, and it didn’t break out state results as it does now, but it marked a trend toward using tests to monitor performance.
Worries about the caliber of the nation’s schools cropped up again in the mid-1970s when the College Board revealed that average SAT scores of American students had been falling since the mid-1960s. The public started to demand proof that schools were doing their jobs, and the states responded by requiring students to take minimal competency tests in order to graduate from high school. These so-called exit exams set several important precedents: they started a trend toward more accountability; they led to more statewide testing; and they began a shift away from measuring students’ performance relative to each other and toward a new regime of measuring how well students individually met strict standards. In psychometric terms, norm-referenced tests were giving way to “criterion-referenced” tests.
Yet, for political reasons—mostly in the form of resistance by local school boards, teacher’s unions, and parents—the bar for passing these exit exams was almost universally low. According to Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, no state before 1990 administered an exit exam that even reached the ninth-grade level.
The ineffectiveness of these tests became obvious in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk, the landmark federal study that warned of a rising tide of mediocrity in the nation’s schools. A number of states responded to the report by pushing for higher standards and mandating tests. Then, in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton nudged the movement along further with legislation that gave grants to state and local governments to set new standards and create tests to measure how well students were meeting them. Most states took advantage of the grants, but the legislation provided no mechanisms to punish schools that failed to make progress. To the extent that there was accountability, it was unevenly adopted by the states.
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