The chorus is growing. Is anyone listening?

Published on Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Not only do test-based accountability systems often bring about less useful instruction, they are demoralizing to teachers.

This month’s Review cover story is about the State Board of Education’s open topic public testimony in March. Many of the teachers who spoke or wrote letters that were delivered to State Board members cautioned against the growing number of tests that their students must take as a result of the AchieveNJ evaluation system. And they fear the PARCC assessments, set to begin next year, will continue to narrow the academic experiences of our students.

The educators and parents who testified or wrote letters are hoping, of course, that the State Board of Education will use its authority to change the course of education reform in New Jersey. Ideally, the way forward would bring a sharp turn away from the focus on testing. The words accountability and assessment would no longer be considered synonyms.

Despite what State Board members have heard from Department of Education officials over the past several years, it isn’t just teachers and parents who object to the proliferation of high-stakes testing in our schools. Many education experts also question the wisdom of testing children to the extent we plan to, especially when we do it primarily to judge the effectiveness of their teachers.

Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). This non-profit organization researches the world’s best performing education systems for the purpose of applying their practices to education policy in the United States. In recent years, NCEE has received funding from the Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, both of which champion the use of student test data to evaluate teachers. That’s why it’s particularly compelling that Tucker is among the latest reformers to declare the test-based school and teacher accountability movement a failure.

Tucker writes an Education Week blog called “Top Performers.” In late February, he began a series of essays explaining that minority and low-income students have actually experienced a lower rate of improvement since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the law which begat our nation’s obsession with testing.

“Indeed, the evidence seems to suggest that teachers of students from low-income minority families leave the regular curriculum to drill their students endlessly on low-level basic skills tests,” Tucker noted in a Feb. 21 post. “In this way, an accountability system designed to support the education of minority and low-income students may actually result in lowered expectations and less useful instruction for those students.”

Minority and low-income students have actually experienced lower rate of improvement since the enactment of No Child Left Behind.

In his Feb. 28 entry, Tucker expanded his argument against test-based accountability, stating “It is doing untold damage to the profession of teaching.” He accurately described the professional despair that many teachers feel these days when, as he put it, “…they are being told what to do and how to do it by people who are not teachers and have little respect for teachers or the work that teachers do.”

“[Teachers] know that the real motivation behind the vogue for teacher evaluation is to fire teachers who are deemed to add insufficient value to a student's education,” Tucker continued, “but they think that tests used for that purpose measure very little of what they think a good education is and even less of what a good teacher does for the students under his or her care.”

In subsequent posts, Tucker addressed what motivates (and fails to motivate) workers. Then he described how the top-performing nations hold teachers accountable. The answer does not include test-based evaluations. The question is whether anyone is listening.

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