Testing isn’t bad, but high-stakes testing is corrosive

The standardized testing you remember as a kid worked as intended: a quick read on how things were going on a particular day. The principal and district looked at the scores and maybe compared them to previous years. But now the stakes have risen, and our schools are worse because of it.

High-stakes testing, basing the existence of a school or principal’s job or teacher’s evaluation on a test score, does not work. It is not supported by research. Even worse, when jobs are on the line, human nature is to game the system to preserve jobs and schools. As the stakes escalate, cheating starts.

This has happened in Atlanta, and also in Washington D.C. in recent years. It may even have happened in Portland.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), started in 2001 and supported by both major parties, was a national fiasco that pushed high-stakes testing and set the stage for the test-and-punish approach we see today. NCLB did not help schools, it degraded schools, especially schools with high student poverty, and it was based on a lie.

NCLB was copied from the so-called “Texas Miracle” led by then-Superintendent of Houston Schools Rod Paige, who later became George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education. Job evaluations were based on test scores, and scores went up. The same for graduation rates. One huge problem: the “test scores or perish” approach led to cheating citywide. Students expected to score low were encouraged to leave the public school system, or were held back from a testing grade that year, only to be promoted past that testing grade the next year.

Another problem with “The Texas Miracle”: at-risk students were ejected from the school system to game the graduation rates. And the students affected most were those in poverty and in ethnic minorities. “60 Minutes II” covered this scandal back in 2004, and despite the harm done to students and “The Texas Miracle” being a sham, it became the national model for applying extreme pressure on producing high standardized test scores.

NCLB has been largely discredited, but its failed approach has actually intensified under the Obama Administration despite leaving only a wide trail of misery behind. With high-stakes testing, with pretending that we can actually teach students out of poverty, we miss as a society the root causes of student poverty: economic disparity and stagnant earnings for almost everyone in a time of record national wealth and productivity. Opting-out is a way of showing the system and policy makers that high-stakes testing is wrong.

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