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Don't skimp on school tests

Cutting back on such tests, as Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed, will not improve education. The tests remain key yardsticks of achievement.

January 20, 2012
(Los Angeles Times )

There are plenty of problems with the school reform movement, but the number of standardized tests isn't one of them. The tests are still the most objective and affordable yardsticks of achievement available. They should be improved and the results should be kept in perspective, but there is no evidence that cutting back on them — as Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed — will improve education.

Students in California take more annual standards tests than are mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The state tests students in English and math each year through 11th grade; federal law requires that, in high school, the tests be given just once. California does additional testing in science and history. In his State of the State address Wednesday, Brown called for eliminating some testing. His proposal was light on details, but reducing the number of end-of-year tests would have several downsides and little obvious benefit beyond adding a few instructional hours to the year.

Brown hearkens back to an era before "data driven" became an educational catchphrase. He calls for teams of evaluators to visit schools to look for the indicators of quality instruction that fill-in-the-bubble tests can't measure. That's an enticing idea. Like Brown, we're concerned that hardly anyone talks anymore about fostering intellect in schools, or the value of learning for its own sake rather than as a means to getting a job. But team evaluations are complicated and expensive to do right. Education funding is scarce, and putting money into the classroom rather than into administrative functions is more important than ever. Standardized tests are, by comparison, objective and cheap. They also ensure that teachers cover the material in the curriculum; before the era of testing, many teachers would simply ignore required subjects. Evaluation visits couldn't ascertain that.

The problem isn't the number of standardized tests that California gives — most high-achieving nations do even more testing — but the collective national obsession with scores. Test results show, over time, whether students at a particular school are learning required material, and whether performance is improving. They can serve as a guide for how to improve pedagogy. But they are limited measurements in many ways. Policies that punish schools and teachers because of year-to-year declines, or that make teachers' evaluations depend heavily on the scores, are misusing the data.

By all means, let's add other meaningful measures of what schools achieve, if California can afford to do it well. California already is collaborating with other states on devising tests that measure for deep understanding rather than broad and shallow information. Even those tests will give the public only part of the picture, but why do without that part?

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