Special Report

May/June 2012 Special Report: The Next Big Test

A new wave of school reform is about to break. Will it change classrooms for the better?

By The Editors

June 5th Washington Monthly Event: “Education’s Next Big Test

Transcontinental Education

Soon, nearly every state in the union will have the same demanding standards for what students should know. If history is any guide, a burst of innovation won’t be far behind.
By Robert Rothman

A Test Worth Teaching To

The race to fix America’s broken system of standardized exams.
By Susan Headden

Grand Test Auto

The end of testing.
By Bill Tucker

Editors: Paul Glastris, John Gravois
Reporting and research: Laura M. Colarusso
Publisher: Diane Straus Tucker
Illustrators: Peter and Maria Hoey

This special report was made possible with the generous support of
the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The Editors can be found on Twitter: @washmonthly.


  • Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed. on May 09, 2012 2:31 PM:

    Prediction from a neurologist who then became a teacher (2nd, 5th, 7th) and now does professional development: Within five years in some countries (five to ten in others) open internet access for information acquisition will be available on standardized tests. This access will significantly reduce the quantity of data designated for rote memorization.

    The Current Information Load Is Too BIG
    Recall that before 1994 a student would be expelled from the SAT exams for bringing any type of calculator. Starting in 1994, calculators were not only permitted, but were essentially required. The driving factors came from the level of mathematics taught and tested and the availability of graphing calculator technology. This change gave students the appropriate tool for accuracy and efficiency (and the one used by most professionals who used mathematics beyond basic arithmetic). Consider also, that calculator access for these standardized tests did not reduce the instruction in and development of arithmetic automaticity. Mental access, of such facts and procedures as the multiplication tables and manipulation of fractions, without a calculator remains a valued goal for all students.
    We are now in the same nexus of advancement of information and technology to make the equivalent jump for other subjects. Access to the internet for information acquisition during tests (and learning) is the appropriate response now, just as the calculator access was in mathematics almost two decades ago.
    As technology and globalization exponentially increase the available facts and knowledge base of all subjects and professions, the response in education has been to incorporate more and more information into the requirements for each school year. The current system of - if its information – teach it and test it - can no longer support the volume of information. Textbooks cannot get much bigger and the impact of the increasing demands on students to memorize data is increasingly counterproductive.
    In the "real world”, professionals in all specialties and businesses use the superiority of the web over the human brain to accurately hold and retrieve facts and to keep up as “facts” change too quickly for even eBooks to be current and accurate by the time they are released.
    Physicians do not rely memory, or even textbooks or the latest journals for the most current, accurate information about diagnostic testing, best treatments, and other facts that change daily.
    For example, before prescribing a medication, the Medscape or Epocrates websites are searched for the most current facts that could have significant impact on a patient’s reactions to the medication. Even for a medication that has been evaluated for cross reactions with other medications when it was tested and when the FDA product information was most recently reported, new information can be critical. That medication could have just been found to cause problems when taken by patients also taking a different medication for another medical condition. Thanks to the physician having access to that new information before prescribing medications, the risk of potential complications is reduced.

    Memorization Breaking Point
    Boredom, frustration, negativity, apathy, self-doubt and the behavioral manifestations of these brain stressors the have increased in the past decade. As facts increase, over-packed curriculum expands, and demands for rote memorization for high stakes testing, the brains of our students have reacted to the increased stress. High stress, including that provoked by sustained or frequent boredom or frustration, detours brain processing away from the higher, rational, prefrontal cortex. In the stress state, the lower, reactive brain is in control. Retrievable memory is not formed and behavioral responses are limited to involuntary fight/flight/freeze – seen in the classroom as act-out, zone-out, or drop out.
    Student che

  • Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed. on May 09, 2012 2:33 PM:

    Completing the Blog Response from Dr Judy Willis

    Students Don’t Get the Brain’s They Need

    Even if the medical, social, psychological, and ethical problems do not promote the change in testing, the economic demands as to what employers want as employee skill sets will inevitably topple the factory model of education.
    The factory model of memorization of facts and procedures that was preparation for assembly line work cannot keep up with the information age requirements for an educated workforce. With the growing in the information base, employers in global industries that develop new products or systems already report they are more interested in a potential employees’ abilities to respond quickly and successfully to frequent change, and to communicate, lead, and collaborate, than they are in their like work experience. Desirable employees are those capable of making use of new information and technology to solve new problems and innovate ahead of the competition.
    The lives our students will live and the jobs for which they’ll compete will not be about answering questions correctly, but about how they use knowledge and respond to changes. Yet currently the time sacrificed to fact memorization and test prep is resulting in more high school dropouts and students graduating from the secondary system without the preparation to succeed in college, employment, or to lead fulfilling lives.


    Freedom from excessive rote fact memorization focus means teachers can be creative individually and as professional learning communities. There will be reduction of the “management” problems that currently result from stressed-brain reactive behavior. Educators will be able to develop and use more engaging, relevant, and equitable learning experiences enhancing cross-curricular skills and competences. More access to foundational facts, which are not equally acquired by some students with language or learning differences, will mean they are not held back from applying other strengths to build conceptual knowledge and understanding. as students are guided with learning opportunities that develop their executive functions they will develop understanding beyond just knowing. Their extended their neural networks will empower them transfer knowledge to new applications as we help them build the brains to achieve their greatest creative potentials.

  • Randy Fritz on May 10, 2012 12:11 PM:

    Another series of articles touting the "next wave" of high-stakes standardized testing. How novel! How droll!

    I've tried to read some of this and have ended up skimming so I wouldn't need to have a bucket nearby. This is nothing but the same old crap I've read too many times in my 30 years as a teacher (high school, full time).

    Your original premise is faulty: that somehow some sort of annual "test" (or four times annually--whatever) somehow shows what is accomplished in school classrooms. A hundred things go on every minute in every classroom. The idea that, somehow, all can be titrated down to a single test, designed from the outside, given in Rhode Island and Mississippi, can actually tell us anything about what's going on in America's schools. This effort is no more than an attempt to "quantify" so you can "compare" the "success" of one school to another. In a multi-cultural, multi-regional public education system. The very idea stretches credulity way past the breaking point.

    The "effort" is written here by "experts" who have little or no classroom experience. If they're happy playing with their numbers and can draw a paycheck from doing so, then good for them I suppose. But they shouldn't pretend they're doing anything of value. They are simply not.

    In one article, education is being compared to the building of railroads. WHAT? Did those railroads have to accept any and every piece of material shipped to them, by any supplier who felt like it, use it to build the right-of-ways, and fix the material that was substandard? No, they could choose their materials as any business does. Not only that, this sub-standard material would have been their most expensive to work with, but they COULD NOT HAVE DISCARDED ANY OF IT. A public school is in precisely that situation: when a student comes knocking on our door we accept him or her and do our best to educate. Ten years old and haven't been to school yet? Let us design a "catch-up" one-off program for you, and maybe hire an additional teacher in the process. (And no existing voucher program is required to do that--they just turn such kids away.) Anybody who compares public education to business is on a fool's errand because the two simply aren't comparable.

    "Our students don't live up to the standards in other nations." Really? Are we taking into consideration the fact that those countries are always much smaller, much less culturally diverse and have smaller pockets of poverty? Are we controlling for the fact that almost all "track" students long before high school-level testing is done--that many of their students are not even eligible to take those tests? In our system, EVERY student stays in a system that allows them to excel at ANY point (and they ALL get tested). I have had many students who, for instance, "blew off" their freshman and sophomore years, only to get their act together, graduate, and successfully attend college after. In those countries we are regularly compared to, those students are already re-tracked and cannot go to college (unless they go overseas). In Japan, students not doing well on those qualifying tests have been known to commit suicide. Want to compare our educational achievement? Compare it to Russia, China (ALL of China), India and Indonesia, not Germany and Finland.

    There are ways to fix this problem. #1 and most important: change laws so it's possible to get rid of bad teachers. Yes, there should be some sort of remedial process for "fixing" experienced teachers who have fallen down, but NOT some sort of tenure-track, essentially guaranteed job regardless of effort. I am continually embarrassed by some (a few) of the people I work with. In Illinois, a tenured teacher can hang on by their fingernails because it takes, on average, about half a million dollars to get them fired. Unacceptable.

    #2: reduce class size.

    #3: after the first two are ac

  • Walter Brown on May 11, 2012 4:56 PM:

    Dr. Willis is mistaken about calculators, the SAT, and math fluency. The calculator is no more necessary on the SAT than it was when I took the test 50 years ago. (I've taught and tutored for the SAT for over 20 years.)

    However, calculators have become substitutes for math fluency because the kind of instruction now common in grades 1-8 results in students who either depend on a calculator for everything (because they have no confidence in their mental math skills) or require one as a "security blanket." I have high school students who still add on their fingers and cannot articulate what "3x" means, even though they can enter coordinates into the calculator and obtain the parameters of a linear equation. To them, it's just a series of mechanical button presses.

    For the record, the only change in the math content of the SAT in 50 years has been the addition in 2005 of one or two Algebra 2-level problems. Everything else is pre-algebra, Algebra 1, or geometry. All the numbers are easy; none of the calculations are at all complicated. It's designed to test problem-solving skills and conceptual understanding.

    I agree with Dr. Willis that calculators and other technical tools such as Java applets have helped students learn concepts without wading through 5-digit decimal multiplication by hand. Unfortunately, calculators have also become a substitute for number sense and the ability to do simple calculations mentally.

  • Walter Brown on May 11, 2012 5:03 PM:

    A follow-up on math: last year we had an exchange student from Kazakhstan who was astounded at how much our students depend on calculators. She took the SAT without one. (She also knew more American history when she arrived than our students know after completing AP US History.)