We cannot test and punish our way to better schools

Time to pause on high-stakes exams and take different approach

THE CLOSER THEY ARE to actual public-school classrooms, the more Massachusetts residents understand it’s time to abandon the failed test-and-punish approach to school improvement. For two decades, we’ve seen how high-stakes standardized testing hurts students and fails to prepare them well for life. Now, there’s a growing realization that it’s time to pause, look at the evidence, and take a different approach.

Results from the next-generation MCAS exam show continued large score  gaps linked to race, income, disability, and language. This confirms that decades of chasing higher test results have not addressed basic issues of inequality and racial injustice, inside and outside our classrooms.

As Somerville school committee member — and FairTest consultant — Andre Green said, “We could save ourselves a large amount of money and time and replace the entire MCAS with ‘How many bathrooms does your home have?’ We’d get roughly the same information about students and districts.”

The educational damage from testing overkill has been most intense for schools serving the neediest students. Unfortunately, the new MCAS creates more pressure to focus on boosting test scores, particularly at inner-city schools. That will make the negative effects even worse.

We simply cannot test and punish our way to better schools. For example, research confirms that high school graduation tests do not improve learning but cause real harm. That’s why 12 states have dropped them since 2012. Massachusetts is one of just 13 states clinging to this outmoded policy.

Test defenders say the exams “give value” to a diploma, but research demonstrates the opposite is true. For example, studies show the tests do not improve employment prospects or college readiness and are linked to higher dropout rates. These impacts fall disproportionately on students with disabilities, English language learners, and students of color.

Even graduation test defenders acknowledge that important untested subjects, such as social studies, have been shortchanged in order to prepare students for high-stakes reading and math exams. The answer, however, is not to add another graduation test.

Surveys show that most Americans think there is too much focus on standardized testing. A recent poll found “little support for standardized testing in contrast to the deep interest in testing by policy makers.”

Meanwhile, public school funding has failed to keep pace with real educational needs. In 2015, a state commission concluded we are underfunding our schools by at least $2 billion a year. Rising health care, special education, and other costs have made it ever harder for districts to meet basic educational needs.

Unfortunately, many Massachusetts politicians and the state Board of Elementary and Second Education remain wedded to this failed testing policy. They try to distract us with a supposedly “new and improved” MCAS 2.0 exam.

Isn’t it time we listen to 25 years of evidence showing that our test-based accountability system is perpetuating a “charade,” as Harvard Professor Daniel Koretz calls it?

Meet the Author

Lisa Guisbond

Analyst, FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing
Some policymakers are listening to the rising chorus of voices calling for change. This is why more than 100 Massachusetts legislators support Senate Bill 308. It would not ban testing, but instead place a moratorium on high-stakes use of exams, such as the high school graduation requirement. It would allow time to design a helpful, not harmful assessment system. For example, the bill could pave the way for schools to use projects and portfolios that measure deeper learning.

It’s time to stop demonstrating Einstein’s “Theory of Insanity” – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Time for a new direction.

Lisa Guisbond is an analyst at FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Boston.