Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 03/28/2010

Less Testing, More Learning

By Valerie Strauss

My guests are Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a non-profit organization that works to end the misuse and flaws of standardized testing.

By Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill
During his campaign, Barack Obama was a quick study, learning he could get wild applause and cheers by bashing No Child Left Behind, especially from audiences of public school teachers and parents.

Many felt hope, even exhilaration, to hear Obama say that “we can meet high standards without forcing teachers and students to spend most of the year preparing for a single, high-stakes test.”

They hoped that Obama understood, as they did, that while test makers were getting fat and happy with the NCLB-driven testing explosion, the people giving and taking the tests were getting little return for a huge investment of time and resources.

Now more than three years after No Child Left Behind came due for reauthorization, President Obama’s administration has unveiled its blueprint for reforming the law.

It’s good to see that Obama has finally ditched the preposterous demand that all students make “adequate yearly progress” toward 100% “proficiency” on state tests by 2014. That could be a real victory.

Overall, however, we at FairTest conclude that the blueprint’s details show a deeply disappointing failure to learn from NCLB’s many other big mistakes.

For instance, it still makes standardized testing the centerpiece of the law. (For a more detailed analysis, see this.)

George W. Bush’s education secretary, Margaret Spellings, often said we need to give state tests every year, because otherwise we would have no way of knowing if students were falling behind.

But that’s hogwash, as any teacher, student or parent could have told her.

In the classroom of any reasonably competent teacher, student progress is being evaluated constantly, each time he or she looks at classroom work, not to mention frequent quizzes, papers, projects, and discussions.

All of these allow for valuable, rapid feedback, producing information, or “data” if you wish, that can be used by teachers to address student weaknesses and build on student strengths. Want to make sure students don’t fall behind? Then pay close attention to this kind of data. Want to ensure teachers do this well? Then ensure they have time to work together and learn from one another.

The data from annual state testing, on the other hand, is just not that useful for improving instruction. For all the talk of “data-driven education”--and there is a lot of talk--by the time teachers receive the results of spring testing, usually the next fall, it’s too late to respond efficiently and effectively to their students’ needs.

Teachers lament, for example, that state test data may show one year’s fourth graders are weak in one area of the math curriculum, so there’s a big effort to rejigger things to address that weakness.

But the next year’s fourth graders’ weaknesses might lie in a completely different area. (Not to mention different strengths and weaknesses from student to student.) Oops, too bad. And with just a couple questions in any area, there is too little information to use for teaching. To say nothing of the fact that the tests are mostly multiple-choice.

What about the need for the public to hold schools accountable? To see whether district
A is falling behind and decide whether to intervene? Testing in a few grades, say 4th, 8th and 10th, along with high-quality ongoing assessment in between, would be more than adequate for both assessment and accountability purposes.

The Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB recommends the testing burden on states be decreased by allowing states to assess students annually in selected grades in elementary, middle schools, and high schools.

The statement has been endorsed by 151 national education, civil rights, religious, children’s, disability and civic organizations.

The Forum on Educational Accountability has a more detailed report on how to develop a high-quality assessment system from the classroom up. These provide an assessment blueprint for Congress that could turn NCLB into a tool for improvement, not overtesting and punishment.

If we did adopt this “less is more” approach to testing, we’d look more like high-achieving countries such as Finland, which has no high-stakes testing program, or Singapore, Hong Kong and typical European nations or Canadian provinces, which test the equivalent of once each in elementary, middle and high school.

In a nutshell, the feds should help states develop systems that build on the assessments teachers already do, ensure the quality is good and reasonably comparable across the state, and then use statewide tests as an occasional supplement. That will enable teachers to go back to teaching, not running test prep programs.

In the coming weeks, we will talk about other parts of the blueprint.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | March 28, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Lisa Guisbond, No Child Left Behind, Standardized Tests, Teachers  | Tags:  FairTest, NCLB, standardized testing  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: More on Duncan’s VIP list in Chicago
Next: More colleges join $50K-plus a year club



TC Faculty Question Education Secretary's Vision
Published: 1/11/2010

Questions for Secretary Duncan
Inviting a ‘National Dialogue’ on Teacher Education

To the Editor:

As teacher-educators at Teachers College, Columbia University, we want to thank U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for presenting his vision of teacher education in the 21st century, in a speech given at our school this fall (“Duncan Shares Concerns Over Teacher Prep,” Oct. 28, 2009).

In the spirit of inquiry that President Barack Obama urged students to pursue in his speech to schoolchildren at the beginning of the school year, here are some of the questions we would have asked Secretary Duncan, if time has permitted:

You speak of teacher education programs that “use data, including student-achievement data, to foster an ethic of continuous improvement for students and teachers.” What other kinds of data might they use?
As most state tests are not designed to measure learning from one year to the next, how do you plan to use such measures to assess the effectiveness of teacher and teacher education?
You speak about “great teachers” who “literally change the course of a student’s life. They light a lifelong curiosity, a desire to participate in democracy, and instill a thirst for knowledge.” What do you say to the great teachers who feel that they high priority given standardized-test scores has adversely affected their ability to practice great teaching?
You call for teacher education programs to provide more “meaningful clinical training and classroom experience” for prospective teachers, yet advocate the expansion of alternative route programs that have none (American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence certification) or little (for example, Teach for America) of either before their candidates become the teachers of record for some of the nation’s most vulnerable students. Why shouldn’t these students who have “meaningful clinical training and classroom experience,” too?
Alternative routes were developed to provide for teachers for high-needs schools, but now, in some cases, these teachers are being hired before new fully certified and even experienced teachers are being considered. What is your response to those demoralized teachers who have spent time and money preparing to teach yet can’t find jobs, while less prepared, often less committed people who have been advantaged by free or reduced tuition for master’s degree while earning a salary are being given preference in hiring?
What incentives can be offered to recruit and retain well-prepared prospective teachers to high-poverty, high-needs schools?
We invite a national dialogue related to the vital work of teacher education.

Teachers College, Columbia University
New York, NY

Published as a letter to the editor in the January 6, 2010 edition of Edweek

Posted by: sikacoruptpoltikn | March 28, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

ok let's say fewer annual standardized tests are needed...what do you do about the grade inflation, low quality standards, ineffective teachers in many but who knows how many classrooms as one is too many, lack of holding kids back to give them more time to acquire the solid education they need before they can tackle harder subjects?

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | March 28, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

knoxelcomcastnet: the questions you bring up, particularly those regarding grade inflation and the lack of holding kids back
are often attributable to the administrators in the school who either do not wish to anger parents and/or make their
school look bad. Principals and other administrators need to have the same backbone expected of teachers. They are also very difficult questions that are not solvable with one "magic bullet", i.e. a standardized test - multiple measures are needed.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 28, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for your comments. I used to spend a couple of weeks carefully evaluating my students at the beginning of the year. I took time to find their strengths and weaknesses in language arts and math. I would then group and teach them according to their needs.

I even took them outside and put them through a series of exercises to check their general fitness level, their ability to catch and toss a ball, and other PE skills. I designed PE lessons to give extra help to those whose skills were lacking.

Now, with mandated scripted reading programs and insane math pacing plans there is little time to work with individual students and adjust instruction to their needs.

PE? Who has time to teach PE on a daily basis? If we are lucky, students get a PE lesson every couple of weeks.

I also did what you mentioned. I continously quizzed my students, monitored their progress, and adjusted my teaching accordingly.

I feel we need to do a major overhaul of teacher preparation. I feel if you are interested in teaching, you should be observing/working in the classroom from your freshman year of college.

This would provide schools with needed "extra hands" and would give prospective teachers more time to gain experience.

It would also let prospective teachers know what teaching is like. I have two friends who got their degree and got a teaching credential only to find out that they did not like teaching. They went on to other careers.

Unfortunately there are some who find themselves in the position who do not change careers. They often go into administration, leaving the classroom just as sooon as they can. There are administrators out there who have spent as little as three years (or less) teaching.

Posted by: Jutti | March 28, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Public schools are failing and no one is looking for the solutions. Who cares about testing and tests? The problem is finding ways to help children learn.

This is the age of computer technology and it is time to move away from the blackboard method of teaching.

The problem starts with elementary public school education.

Elementary public schools should introduce children to computer programs that help with learning. Forget the old stay in the classroom method and bring children to the learning lab where they all have their own computer and head phones.

And the lab does not have boring programs.

I introduced my daughter to computer software when she was 3 years old. Reading was aided in learned with the use of Disney Winnie the Pooh and Pocahontas. There was also Sammy Science House. Back then there was plenty of software for children to start to learn.

It is not a magic bullet but just imagine a class in the learning lab where each child learns at their own pace with programs keeping track of their capabilities and changing to meet expanding capabilities. Children that do not have problems with reading at their grade level are working with the program going over material at a higher grade level. Children that have problems with their grade level are working with the program to deal with the problem.

This is not rocket science as all of the software and technology is already here.

Teachers are not done away but work in hand with the benefits that can be obtained from computer technology.

Oh and by the way no internet is needed since all the programs can reside in the learning lab. This cuts down on the expense.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 28, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

The heading of this opinion is perfect, "Less Testing, More Learning", because it frames the issue in exactly the wrong way. The authors would have folks believe that the issue is black and white and that testing is inimical to learning. In their analysis it's a zero sum game, which of course it's not.
Think of the last high stakes test you took. You studied, learned, and were tested. Without the testing component, most of us would study less and learn less. We may not like the tests, but they help rather than hinder learning.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 28, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse


The last time I took a "high stakes test" was the GRE, back in 1993, & basically, what I needed to do well was have a good night's sleep & a decent breakfast. For what it's worth, I earned a scholarship from it, but it wasn't much of an indicator of how I'd do later on (I did get my Master's, but it wasn't quite the path I expected), nor was anything it tested me on all that relevant to the rest of my life.

I agree with bsallamack: Let's introduce America's students to using computers early in school & as an integral part of their education. Look at the successes of the "One Laptop Per Child" program out of MIT!

Posted by: clevin | March 28, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

As an educator my response to this thesis is: DUH.
As I've been saying for over 10 years, end-of-the-year standardized tests do not tell me ANYTHING I didn't already know about my students. From walking around the room, end-of-class quizzes, projects and tests, I know what my students know and can do, and I need no other 'assessments' to verify this.

We teachers must accept some responsibility for this predicament. Too many of us do not teach a deep, rigorous, curriculum, which creates too wide variation in what students know and can do. Parents and teachers must accept responsibility for students entering school unprepared to succeed at the curriculum level. Fixing these issues is more critical and will impact student achievement more strongly than throttling up the testing motors higher than they already are.

Posted by: pdfordiii | March 28, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse

What I think is interesting is that every state gets to make its own test. So, you can not compare states' scores. We are not using an international test either, what way, or compared to whom are we falling behind exactly? There is no standard test. The largest fallacy of the entire testing argument is posed on the common belief that this is somehow scientific testing.

Also, as pdfordiii, Lisa Guisbond and Monty Neill stated, every classroom teacher knows how their students are doing. However, the State, politicians, and home-buyers want to know also. This is not about helping the individual student taking the test.

You should see the things schools do before the test: pep rallies. Schools have pep rallies before the tests. Younger grades make posters cheering on the older grades taking the test. The test. The test. The test is coming. 30 days until the test. And, that one standardized test from the state is not the only standardized test given during the school year. I added up all of the testing days on the calendar was the same as 3 weeks of school.

Another test is not the answer.

Posted by: jengerator | March 28, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

Scores on GRE's have high correlations with SAT scores which have high correlations with traditional intelligence tests. Fact is you likely had put yourself in a position to succeed on the GRE based on preparation you had been doing for years, including a likely high intelligence, as it's traditionally measure anyway.
GRE's are not the types of tests kids are being asked to take. They are being given achievement tests measuring specific sorts of knowledge. Can they perform traditional algebraic functions? Are they able to distill information from a graph or pie chart? If they read a paragraph can they pick the best choice as to the main idea? Are they able to put historical events into a correct chronology?
We for some unknown reason are trying to complicate things here. Aren't there basic things we want kids to know as they go through school and can't we devise relatively straightforward tests to see if they know those things. Yes and yes.
The point is not whether an individual teacher knows her students' abilities. That's way too subjective. We want to know those students abilities on either norm or criterion referenced standardized tests (hopefully both).

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 29, 2010 6:08 AM | Report abuse

Having taught college English for fifteen years, my disgust with America's testing overdose comes from seeing all the freshmen who arrive at our universities with a mastery of multiple choice, but unable to write an eloquent paragraph, let alone come up with an original thesis. Today's K-12 teachers have less and less time for the slow, individually tailored work of instruction in writing and critical thinking. In Virginia, the results are especially sad in the teaching of history, which should include a lot of reading and writing. Instead, from third grade forward Virginia's children memorize facts (often trivia) for SOL tests, with little time devoted to putting those facts together into narratives, drawing connections and forming ideas. I pulled my daughter from the fifth grade to give her one year of writing-across-the-curriculum. In that year she did more writing than she would be asked to complete in the next three years combined. In fact, in the 6th-8th grades she never wrote a paper in history; she spent all her time taking multiple choice quizzes and tests. You might say she had some bad teachers--but I'm sure her teachers scored very well on the Bush-Obama test-prep scale. Testing has its place, but it should not be confused with learning.

Posted by: LauraBrodie | March 29, 2010 7:01 AM | Report abuse

LaurieBrodie- 2 questions
1. Has there ever been a time when freshman college English teachers said, "Wow, I really notice how well these freshman write compared to the way they used to write"?
2. By the time the kids get through freshman English with you are they writing passably well?
Maybe the development of writing is best learned in college, not high school.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 29, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Having taught college English for fifteen years, my disgust with America's testing overdose comes from seeing all the freshmen who arrive at our universities with a mastery of multiple choice

Posted by: LauraBrodie | March 29, 2010 7:01 AM
Public education might change when Americans start to feel disgust with the politicians.

In 2001 Americans accepted the ridiculous idea that standardized testing would solve the problems in public education.

The new administration is willing to continue this fraud with "test them until they drop" and "teach to the test".

Standardized testing only indicates problems. Tests indicate that children are not learning so of course the politicians jumped on the crowd pleaser that teachers are not teaching.

No one in this country asks why children are having difficulty in learning.

Apparently American adults in this country have a difficulty in learning since they continuously accept the absurd ideas of the politicians regarding public education.

Oh and by the way. No one so far has come up with any idea how "testing until they drop" and "teach to the test" can help children to learn how to read. Even the politicians might wonder how tests that require reading can be used as the tool for children to learn to read.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 29, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Writing has to be learned as a daily process from kindergarten forward, practiced with the same diligence as math and reading. While some schools still teach the traditional 3 Rs, many others now have a focus on reading and math with writing as a sidebar. Trying to play catch up in freshmen composition class can't compensate for years of neglect. And yes, we college English teachers probably do gripe about it too much, but we also spend enormous time trying to help students improve. Of course the problem lies much deeper than in K-12 writing instruction, because the best way to learn writing is through constant reading, and many college students will readily confess that they don't read much unless they are forced to do so.

Posted by: LauraBrodie | March 29, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Excellent article! When I was in China on a Fulbright, the Ministry of Education told us they watch our DOE in Washington to see what we are doing. We asked them, "Good grief, why?" And they said..."BECAUSE WE HAVE TESTED THE CREATIVITY OUT OF OUR STUDENTS. THEY CAN COPY OR MEMORIZE ANYTHING, BUT CAN'T CREATE" I will never forget it. We told them to not waste their time because we are heading there.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | March 29, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

New FB sight:
Florida Teachers, Students, and Parents Leaving the Republican Party

Quote from a FL professor of education to his students last week:
"Run..Run as fast as you can. Get out now! Do something else with your life."

I have NEVER seen a coming together in all my years of teachers, administrators, school board members, and superintendents.

And to think...the Republican Party is considering Tampa for their 2012 convention.
PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, let us have it in our backyard. We will invite the teachers of America to hold picket signs with the convention as a backdrop. PRICELESS

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | March 29, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

I get that there can be too much of the wrong type of tests, but I think a lot of people miss the value of this information. Without testing we would have missed how much my daughter was not succeeding mid year. Often it is seeing those tests from the previous grade that gives the teachers a sense of how they may need to redirect their lessons. The fact is that we live in a math illiterate society that is afraid of numbers. Once you have the data it is amazing what you can do, but you have to learn how to use it.

Posted by: Brooklander | March 29, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

Actually, in CA I do not find the standards tests particularly useful. The content or skills are divided into areas that are so broad as to not be useful. The standards tests are not intended to be diagnostic instruments, to tell the teacher anything more than broad categories of either strength of weakness. Within those broad categories are many skills and subskills, so the information is not useful in planning instruction. The standards tests were intended to meet the requirements of NCLB, to give parents and teachers some general idea of children who are achieving and those who are not. Diagnostic instruments probe specific skills more deeply and deliver some detailed information that teachers can use to plan curriculum. Oh, most standards tests are not standardized, they are criterion-referenced tests.

Posted by: silverstarent2003 | March 29, 2010 10:27 PM | Report abuse

I understand that all teacher want there students to score high, and they do the best too succed at this. But the truth is if students are unwilling and disinterested on what schools have to offer, there will be no high standard scores. Most students ask them self, "What are we studing for?" They see hundreds of teachers and other people being laid off from their work. Cuts on educational funds. Do you think they care what the school or the government have to offer under these circumstances. They want to learn something that can help them become a better person and have an equal opportunity in this global revolution we are living in.
Make serveys, ask the students what they want and make this your starting point.
Thank you
Dr. A. De Jesus, Ed.D

Posted by: adj_1977 | April 2, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company