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Judging the Quality of Instruction

Does standardized testing really help?

As back-to-school season arrives, parents and their children are excitedly filling their school supply lists and checking out the latest fall fashions at the mall. Parents, though, often have many important decisions to make regarding their children’s education.

Maybe they are uncertain about what school is the best fit, which after-school programs to enroll in, whether their child should take choir, band or both. Not to pile on more worries, but I am going to throw another decision into the mix. 

This year, districts are required by law to inform parents of their right to exempt their child from mandated, high-stakes, standardized tests, commonly referred to as Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Parents should seriously consider opting their children out of testing as a step toward realigning education toward authentic assessment of both students and teachers.

Standardized testing is not inherently a bad thing. While there are sound theoretical arguments against all standardized testing, most educational experts believe testing is useful for guiding instruction. Assessment is a vital part of instruction, and standardized assessments provide important information regarding the growth and progress of students. That should be the purpose of testing: filling in more pieces of the puzzle pertaining to student progress.

So what is wrong with SBAC and why should parents exempt their children from taking it? Advocates claim three main benefits of participating in SBAC testing. First, the tests will provide information on “how our schools and teachers are doing.” Second, the tests are more rigorous and provide more accurate information to guide instruction. Third, testing reveals the achievement gap between the “normal” population and “disadvantaged” populations. 

All of these goals are worthy, and if the test could perform all these functions adequately, there would be little reason to oppose it. The problem is that no test, including SBAC, can adequately perform all these duties.

No standardized proficiency assessment is also a measure of instructional quality. SBAC advocates promote the test as an evaluation of instruction. SBAC, like all standardized proficiency assessments, measure student skills and are only indirect measures of instruction. 

For that reason, the American Statistical Association (ASA) issued a statement against the use of standardized tests in teacher and school evaluations. The ASA statement cautioned that only 1 to 14 percent of variance in test scores is due to instruction. Professor Emeritus W. James Popham, a widely respected expert on educational assessment, concluded “asserting that low or high test scores are caused by the quality of instruction is illogical.” Yet that is exactly what SBAC advocates assert.

Second, as a measure of proficiency capable of guiding instruction in the classroom, SBAC fails to deliver. It could be that SBAC is very accurate and precise in generating a score that relates to a student’s actual proficiency. But that’s all it does. SBAC reporting categories do not provide standard-specific information. 

Again, this goes against the recommendations of most assessment experts. If a student is mandated to take a test, whether an hour or eight hours, that test should be expected to generate instructionally useful data. SBAC does not do that. The score generated is actually designed to be an indicator of “how schools and teachers are doing,” comparable across schools, districts and states and is not a reliable statistic for that purpose.

Third, the claim that any standardized test will benefit disadvantaged communities flies in the face of a century of practice. In fact, standardized testing has been used to make claims of racial supremacy, ignoring the inherent bias that exists in test development — a bias that goes beyond the cultural sensitivity that test makers today try to accommodate. 

Closing the achievement gap was one of the original goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which proved to be a failure. Instead, schools and teachers who were committed to serving in underprivileged communities were more likely to be the target of sanctions, based solely on test scores, not school or teacher quality. Failure to account for the many out-of-school factors that have more influence on scores is a fatal flaw that harms disadvantaged communities.

In short, SBAC tries to do too much and ends up doing too little. No proficiency test is also an accurate measure of instructional quality. Our kids deserve a test that is a fair measure of their abilities and can be used to guide their instruction. Our students, teachers and schools would benefit from decoupling student assessment and teacher evaluation. 

Parents can encourage leaders of educational policy to take a step in the right direction by boycotting Smarter Balanced testing and encouraging them to adopt authentic measures of teacher quality and instructionally useful student assessment.