Moving Beyond Testing–What Constitutes Success in School?

August 3, 2007

According to Mark Fisher, Michelle Rhee in DC is committed to thinking broadly about what would constitute success in school. He says she will resist defining success simply by looking at test scores in reading and math. Maybe we’ll even get arts programs in our schools! Like Fisher, I pray this is the case.

On the federal level, George Miller is making similar noises about NCLB, but it is too early to tell exactly what Miller has in mind. Like Ross Wiener of Ed Trust says in this WPost article, the devil is in the details on this one. And as Kevin Carey notes, Miller’s comments are a really big deal.

The bottom line is that reading and math tests have a hugely important role to play, but the evidence has simply become overwhelming that our current focus means 1) other subjects get less attention, and 2) schools–not knowing how else to raise scores–resort to drill and test prep in place of rich, engaging instruction.

Regarding drill and kill, I agree with Amy Wilkins and the folks at Ed Trust who argue that the best schools raise test scores while providing excellent teaching, and don’t need to teach to the test. (Amy said in a recent radio interview that in good schools the test is like a “gnat on the windshield” while driving down the road of education.) But that exposes one of the great ironies of No Child Left Behind–the very schools that we already knew did not provide high quality teaching are somehow expected to become places of rigorous instruction once we measure the results. But teaching kids who struggle academically is really hard stuff, and it is evident to anybody who spends time in urban schools that while some teachers are lazy, others simply do not know what to do to get better outcomes.

The key then is measuring a wide variety of outcomes (including reading and math, but not only them), measuring them in ways that are authentic and valid (some will disagree, but I think tests are ok, if they are good ones), and providing schools and teachers with the supports they need to develop good curricula and instructional practice. This last one is the hardest, and the one where federal and state policies have so far had the least impact.


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