Commentary | Education

Beyond standardized tests

Eight years after the No Child Left Behind Act required all public schools to measure student performance through standardized tests, there is mounting evidence that students have not been served by a system that encourages a practice of “teaching to the test,” while neglecting all the other factors like exercise, health care, and social skills that prepare children to succeed at life.

In a new report last month, The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) campaign made a series of recommendations for a new national education policy that would take a more comprehensive measure of student performance.

“School reform can’t be the whole solution,” Tom Payzant, who co-authored the report, said during EPI’s June 25 panel discussion on meaningful school improvement in a post-NCLB era.

Payzant, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who previously served as the superintendent of the Boston Public Schools as well as assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education under Bill Clinton, noted that the nation’s education policy must recognize that schools alone cannot give children all the academic and social skills and year-round attention they need to thrive.
Explaining the limits of standardized tests to track achievement, Payzant repeated what President Obama said at a recent town hall meeting: “Weighing a pig doesn’t make it fat.”

In one recent sign of the failings of No Child Left Behind, a suburban Atlanta elementary school principal was found to have changed the answers on fifth-grade standardized tests to help the school meet federal achievement standards. And beyond the question of whether standardized tests produce an accurate measure of academic performance, there is the matter of all the non-academic skills that need to be taught. A 2006 study by the American Heart Association found that diminished physical education in schools could be contributing to childhood obesity.

The BBA campaign’s report recommends an aggressive school improvement strategy that includes attracting quality teachers to hard-to-staff schools; providing high-quality early-childhood care for all disadvantaged children; providing routine and preventive medical and dental care; and improving the quality of out-of-school time to provide opportunities for social and emotional skill-building after school, on weekends, and over the summer.

The report was co-authored by Christopher Cross, senior fellow with the Center for Education Policy who served as assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush; Susan Neuman, professor the University of Michigan School of Education who served as assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush; and EPI research associate Richard Rothstein.

Discussing the proposed reforms at EPI, Cross stressed that the report “does not mean that we’re in any way telling schools they are off the hook in their primary mission of educating children.” But he said that even tests that measured performance in core academic subjects like math and reading needed to be improved so that they made a more sophisticated assessment of critical thinking and reasoning.

The Broader, Bolder Approach report also recommends that individual states, rather than the federal government, take the lead in measuring student and school performance. Instead of repeatedly administering the same basic tests, it says that states should experiment with creative ways of assessing progress. The role the federal government should play, it advises, is in collecting and reporting data from different states to offer a view of how students are performing nationwide.

“It will require additional funding,” the report says, noting, “We cannot develop an accountability system on the cheap.”

“The investment we make in better data on how states compare in these areas will, in the long run, be cost-effective by providing the data to support elimination of wasteful and educationally inefficient practices that are not accomplishing the outcomes we seek.”

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