What to do about standardized tests

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Natalie Wexler

Critics of standardized testing say scores merely reflect family income and other factors beyond schools’ control—while also narrowing the curriculum and warping instruction. Still, the tests have value, and there’s much more that schools could do to address the inequities they reveal.

“Standardized tests are best at measuring family income,” education-reform opponent Diane Ravitch has opined. “Well-off students usually score in the top half of results; students from poor homes usually score in the bottom.”

Similarly, an education policy analyst told the Washington Post earlier this year that test score gains at some high-poverty D.C. high schools didn’t mean much—and neither, presumably, did the fact that at some other high schools fewer than five percent of students scored at or above the proficient level.

“People want to read into these test scores lessons about what the schools are doing,” he said. “But these scores, even the growth scores, depend a great deal on students’ opportunities to learn outside of school. If we address the poverty and racism, then we will see these test scores increase.”

At the same time, many parents and teachers have charged that testing has distorted the curriculum, caused students unnecessary anguish, and taken valuable time away from instruction. The replacement for No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act, was supposed to ease up on testing. Anti-testing agitation has died down, but in most cases the pressure on schools to raise scores remains as high as ever.

Critics of testing make some valid points. Test scores are highly correlated with family income, and the gap in scores has grown along with income inequality. And there’s no doubt that testing in reading and math has squeezed other subjects—like history, science, and the arts—out of the curriculum. Teachers have also adapted their instruction to mirror the kinds of questions that appear on the tests.

But we don’t need to wait until poverty and racism have been “addressed” to do something about the test-score gap. If schools want to narrow gaps—and the underlying inequities they reveal—they simply need to stop looking to the tests as a guide to what and how to teach. Instead, they need to reintroduce the subjects they’ve jettisoned in a futile effort to boost scores.

It’s important to understand what standardized tests—and especially reading tests—are actually measuring. Most educators, along with most members of the general public, assume that reading tests assess skills. The tests consist of passages followed by questions designed to measure students’ comprehension: Which part of the passage supports this claim? Which statement below best summarizes the passage’s main idea?

Educators under pressure to raise scores drill students in these supposed skills for hours every week, using a variety of unrelated brief passages. Often the texts students use to practice the “skills” are geared to their individual reading levels, which may be well below the reading level of the grade they’re in.

But the passages on the tests are usually at what is deemed to be grade level. And they don’t relate to anything students have actually learned in school, because the test designers have no idea what topics different schools are covering—if, given the narrowing of the curriculum to reading and math, they’re covering any topics at all. So the designers include passages on a random variety of subjects.

To demonstrate comprehension skills, students first need to have enough background knowledge to understand the passages. In fact, studies have shown that the key factor in reading comprehension isn’t abstract skill but relevant knowledge—which means that reading tests primarily measure knowledge, not skills.

That brings us to why students from higher-income families generally score better. It’s not just because they have more money. For a variety of reasons—like level of parental education and exposure to enriching experiences—children from wealthier families are more likely to pick up the kind of knowledge necessary to understand the passages on reading tests.

But contrary to what critics like Ravitch argue, schools are not powerless in the face of this unequal distribution of knowledge. If they turn away from the fruitless effort to build abstract comprehension skills and toward building students’ knowledge of history, science, and the arts, an increase in comprehension—and test scores—will eventually follow. The earlier that process begins, the greater the chances of success. (Math tests are a somewhat different story, but lack of background knowledge and vocabulary can certainly interfere with students' ability to understand word problems.)

There’s an important caveat: it's impossible to predict what topics will be covered on a standardized reading test, so the specific knowledge a student acquires in school may or may not help. Eventually, students can amass enough knowledge and vocabulary to understand almost any passage that shows up on a test, but it’s hard to say exactly when that point will be reached.

One way around that problem is to make the topics on tests more predictable, so that teachers can give all students a fighting chance at understanding the passages. One state, Louisiana, is now experimenting with reading tests aligned to the state’s own English and social studies curriculum. Alternatively, test designers could announce in advance a list of topics the reading passages will draw on. Unless teachers have a sense of what topics to cover in school, the tests will continue to penalize kids who haven't been lucky enough to acquire much knowledge elsewhere.

Test scores provide a valuable general barometer of how much knowledge different groups of students have been able to accumulate. But there are reasons to build knowledge that are more important than test scores. The more knowledge you have, the better able you are to understand high school- and college-level texts—or newspapers, or on-the-job instruction manuals. People with more knowledge have a better chance of getting good jobs and exercising their responsibilities as citizens.

The question is whether standardized tests are more of a help or a hindrance in addressing the gap in knowledge. On the one hand, the tests uncover inequities that are masked by schools’ grading systems, thereby holding educators’ feet to the fire. It’s not as though schools were doing a great job of building knowledge, or equalizing access to it, before high-stakes testing came along.

On the other hand, because of widespread misunderstanding about what the tests measure, testing may have made the situation even worse. When educators feel they’re being evaluated on the basis of their students’ skills, it can be hard for them to take in the message about the importance of building knowledge.

There’s no ideal solution, but here’s what I recommend: Keep giving tests, but make the topics of reading passages more predictable, thereby providing an incentive for teachers to cover content and not just "skills." Alternatively, ease up on using test scores to rate schools and evaluate individual teachers. Either of these measures could give educators breathing room to consider whether what and how they teach is providing all students—and especially the most vulnerable—with the knowledge they need and the skills that can only develop in tandem with it.

Natalie Wexler is the author of “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System—and How to Fix It,” forthcoming from Avery in August 2019. She is also the co-author, with Judith C. Hochman, of “The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades” (Jossey-Bass, 2017).

This article was originally published by Forbes.