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Failing the Test to Improve Schools

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Failing the Test to Improve Schools

by Doug Harris

Education is like baseball. Or so President Bush would have us believe.

As owner of the Texas Rangers, Bush’s success was determined by the number of games his team won. For schools, winning means high test scores. School principals, like coaches, try different strategies until their scores go up.

And as any coach or principal knows, there are hundreds of statistics available to help decide how to improve the performance of players or students. For the latter, these statistics come from lots of tests: tests required by teachers, by principals, by state governments, and by college admission boards.

Test scores have taught us a lot, but there is a limit to how much they can teach. At best, the Bush testing plan is an empty gesture. At worst, it would unduly pressure schools to abandon important goals in favor of those that are easy to measure.

The first part of the President’s plan would require that all students be tested every year in grades three through eight. It seems he doesn’t realize that there has already been an explosion of testing, provoking a major backlash by parents and teachers. How often do you hear parents and teachers complain that they don’t know how their students are performing?

Bush’s plan would then provide financial rewards to schools that increase scores for disadvantaged students. Narrowing the test score gap is a worthy goal. We know that many students are left behind and deserve better.

But one lesson we’ve learned from tests already administered is that pressure from parents and citizens provides the best incentives for schools to improve. Simply publicizing the results has already had a substantial effect.

At first glance, it also looks sensible to use financial incentives. Baseball teams rake in the money if they make the playoffs. Bad teams have financial incentives to improve.

But this is where the baseball analogy falls apart. First, providing financial rewards to successful schools, at the expense of less successful ones, would be like giving more money to the Yankees (who spend six times as much as the lowest-spending teams).

Second, Bush’s incentives work completely against one of his other goals — improving teacher quality. Good teachers are already doing good work. It would be foolish to change what they’re doing in order to administer more tests. Teaching to the test not only derails sound teaching practices, but also drives the most creative teachers out of the profession.

We need to think more carefully about how we’re measuring performance. Education outcomes are much more complicated than wins and losses. A fair and comprehensive measure would account for issues like health, creativity, motivation, and civic responsibility, as well as test scores.

A good education is a basic right of citizenship that many never receive. Too many students are left with crumbling buildings, disorganized classrooms, and ill-trained teachers. These are the real problems that need to be addressed, and whether we like it or not, addressing them will require money, not gimmicks.

Kids are not professional ballplayers. The exact thing that makes baseball interesting is that some players and teams must fail while others triumph. But in our schools, no one should lose.

The President is right to focus on disadvantaged students, but wrong to treat schools like baseball teams.

Doug Harris is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


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