Today, The New York Times published a comprehensive statistical analysis of New York City students' standardized test performance under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The results are a mixed bag. On the one hand, city students' scores on the New York statewide tests have risen at a faster rate than the scores in New York state as a whole. On the other hand, city students' scores have not risen at all on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is generally considered a more accurate measurement of student achievement. (Under No Child Left Behind, states' federal school funding is tied to performance on state tests, so states arguably have an incentive to make those tests easier. The federal government, presumably, has no such incentives).
The rest of the test results present similarly a muddled picture: the gap between the percentages of black and white city students who pass the statewide tests has narrowed, but if the achievement gap is measured in raw scores, it has not narrowed as much. Critics argue that this disparity shows that the state has simply set the "passing" bar lower on these tests --i.e, a 60% on the statewide test in 2002 was a failure, but now that same 60% gets students a "pass." On the SAT test, city students' scores dropped 2% between 2004 and 2008, although that drop might be attributed to a corresponding rise in the number of students who took the test. And so forth. For more ambiguous test results, hop on over to the New York Times website and read the article for yourself. Accompanying the article on the Times website are 1) an awesome tool where you can track scores by subject, grade, school year, and individual school, and, 2) a less-awesome blog discussion featuring a host of critics who, surprisingly, disagree on what these test results "mean."
The ol' talking (blogging?) heads don't have anything particulary novel to say about the New York test scores. They more or less rehash of the same debates that have dominated education policy for years. Defenders of testing say they're the best tool we have for measuring growth, that their scores are reliable, and that test gains correspond to real learning. Test critics say that standardized tests ignore other important indicators of student growth, that they are almost invariably dumbed-down, and that any growth in test scores are simply a result of teachers "teaching to the test."
The "teaching to the test" criticism may be the hardest to measure--and thus, quite possibly the most difficult to rebut. Not that defenders of testing regimes don't try: New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, for one attempts to avoid the charge by implying that the tests are perfectly aligned with ideal educational outcomes. As Klein says, "if...test prep is about teaching people to read and understand paragraphs, that’s what I think education is about."
Arguments like Klein's remain unconvincing, though, for at least two reasons, both of which make me wish I knew a good link to a YouTube video of somebody beating the living crap out of a straw man:
- 1) test critics do not think that "test prep is about teaching people to read and understand paragraphs," and thus dispute Klein's premise, and,
- 2) if Klein's premise is correct and "test prep" equals 'teaching people to read and understand paragraphs," nobody's going to argue that's part of what education is about. The issue is whether that is all education is about.
The reason that "teaching to the test" is such a potent criticism is that people intuitively gravitate towards a richer, more diverse vision of education. Sure, education is about reading short paragraphs and dividing fractions, but, as various commentators on the Times blog point out, it's also about thinking critically, appreciating complex literature, teaching students to interact with others, and fomenting children's moral and psychological development. Even if we do assume that tests are a 100% reliable and accurate measurement of things like "reading" and "math," I don't think many people would feel comfortable giving children an educational experience that consists entirely of preparation for those tests. Make no mistake about it--schools' emphasis on test preparation often corresponds to schools' de-emphasis of other scholastic endeavors like, say, art.
And the fact that a child can pass a test does not mean that child is somebody we can be proud of. Elliot Schrefer, the author of "Hack the SAT," recently showed how easily one can ace the SAT essay test with a basic knowledge of spelling, grammar and syntax. Schrefer achieved a near-perfect score on the test by writing an essay that praised the Nazis. Schrefer's nearly "perfect" essay included phrases like "not everybody has the right to exist at all" and only by "safeguarding racial stratification and genetic superiority can true and ambitious progress be made."
None of this is to say that accountability isn't important, or that testing regimes themselves are fatally flawed. But the essential argument behind "teaching to the test"--that students will ultimately benefit from a richer, more diverse educational experience than they are currently being offered--should be taken seriously. Over the past few weeks, we've seen hundreds of people design and fund gifts that are based on their own individual passions right here at The Generation Project.org. These gifts span an incredible range of subjects--from sports to arts to literature to gardening to math to chess to photography to theatre and so on. Many of our donors, at least, seem to believe that education is more than reading and understanding paragraphs. Indeed, many seem to believe that expanding students' opportunities (say, by exposing them to Harry Potter, Roald Dahl, or modern poetry) will help them read and understand those paragraphs.
I doubt "teaching to the test" is a particularly potent political issue. Donors through The Generation Project are probably not a representative sample of the New York City polity, so Mssrs Bloomberg and Klein probably don't have too much to worry about on this front. But to the degree that they have control over the state of public education, every one of our donors has put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, and empowered their own vision for the future of education. So, here's the shameless plea for support (on behalf of the kids you'll help!): whether you agree or disagree with this post, why not sign up or login to The Generation Project's community site and generate your own ideas to empower education?