Putting standardized testing to the test
UMass Lowell’s Jack Schneider says our testing focus is damaging to schools and kids
WITH SPRING COMES the annual ritual of MCAS testing in Massachusetts schools. It’s how we gauge the performance of individual students as well as schools and districts. The assessment of basic skills in math, English, and, more recently, science offers a snapshot of academic achievement levels, and it is the central measure used in the state’s accountability system that aims to hold schools responsible for outcomes.
And, argues Jack Schneider, it fundamentally gets everything wrong.
The UMass Lowell professor wrote in his recent book, Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality, “We have two decades of evidence that current approaches to educational measurement are insufficient and irresponsible.”
Schneider says on this week’s Codcast that test scores serve only as “demographic data in disguise,” telling us more about the family income of students than about the quality of their education.
He’s part of a cohort of critics who say the testing and accountability systems that have accompanied the modern education reform movement have served to narrow the curriculum — particularly in schools serving lots of poor kids. Test scores, he says, tell us nothing about how safe students feel, whether they are “developing as citizens,” and whether they feel engaged by school.
The conversation turned to familiar debate in education circles. While almost everyone would regard the things Schneider describes as important, the education reform movement was driven by a sense of alarm that poorer kids were not gaining basic literacy and numeracy skills needed to make it in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. No amount of arts education or focus on social skills, say reform advocates, can make up for that.
“I’m not exactly sure that literacy and numeracy sit at the top of a hierarchy,” said Schneider, who says education for more privileged students doesn’t involve a trade-off between core academic skills and arts and music education.
“I want all of that for every kid,” he said. “I am not OK saying that we are going to give more privileged kids everything, and we are going to make less privileged kids literate and numerate.”
Schneider is particularly critical of the way the state accountability system turns test scores into “policy weapons” that he says narrow the mission of schools. He says the rating of schools and districts by test scores, which don’t necessarily capture the quality of instruction or school curriculum, tend to reinforce patterns based on community income levels. “That segregates our Commonwealth even more than it already is,” he said.
Schneider is research director for an initiative called the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, which includes eight districts in the state that are piloting the use of an alternative assessment that takes a broader measure of school quality and student outcomes.He says it’s an attempt to design the “accountability system of the future.” Schneider calls it a “moonshot” project aimed at doing “everything that everybody wants.”
He’s not expecting to see it adopted wholesale by the state. But even in a worse-case scenario, if the state ends up measuring school quality “a bit more comprehensively,” presenting data that aren’t so “skewed toward whiter and more affluent schools and districts,” and scales back some of the sanctions of the accountability system, he said, “that’s a victory for me.”