In the era of No Child Left Behind and Common Core,
we’ve forgotten about the learning and development that matter
“I’m writing a book about school testing.”
That’s the conversation I’ve been having again and again recently. As an education writer for the past twelve years and as a parent talking to other parents, I’ve seen how high-stakes standardized tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness.
The way much of school is organized around these tests makes little sense for young humans developmentally. Nor does it square with what the world needs.
My husband edited together a two-minute time-lapse video of our daughter learning, over several months, to walk: standing up on wobbly legs, waving her hands with a “Woop!” crashing back down on her rear end, toddling a few steps into our outstretched arms, and, finally, crossing a room. It’s pretty irresistible, if I do say so myself.
Parenting my daughter in the first years of her life has been a master class on human development. She is so driven to explore her environment and to express herself, to communicate with, please, and sometimes resist the people around her. She doesn’t just walk—she walks toward something. She doesn’t just speak—she speaks to someone. Mental, physical, emotional, and social milestones are all intertwined.
In the first year or four, children are hardly ever bored, unless they’re hemmed in by “Nos.” They stay in the proverbial state of flow, right on the edge of their abilities. Provided they get the emotional refueling they need to feel secure, they are always reaching for the next milestone, stumbling, teetering, and getting up again.
All the experts are constantly reminding parents that infants develop on their own timetables. The overall trajectory of growth and progress is more important than any particular snapshot in time. Furthermore, early learning is as much about creative expression and social engagement as it is about parroting any memorized patterns, like letters or numbers. Good preschools are little Paris salons—full of art, music, movement, rivalries, friendships, love, and, above all, imagination. They are also highly concerned with the practical matters of life, such as the use of forks, buttons, faucets. Folding laundry and washing dishes can be just as absorbing for toddlers as reading books and singing songs.
Yet just a few years later, when kids enter school, we start to limit our consideration of learning and development to a single hand-eye-brain circuit, forgetting the rest of the body, mind, and soul. It’s math and reading skills, history and science facts that kids are tested and graded on. Emotional, social, moral, spiritual, creative, and physical development all become marginal, extracurricular, or remedial pursuits. And we suddenly expect children to start developing skills on a predetermined timetable, one that is now basically legislated on a federal level. This is what is called rigor and high expectations. But it’s woefully out of date.
Still, as a parent, I have to admit that if you give my daughter a test—any test—I want her to score off the charts. Tests seductively promise to reveal the essential, hidden nature of identity and destiny. Everyone wants to see good numbers.
This is a book about reconciling that dilemma. If you can’t manage what you don’t measure, as the business maxim goes, how do we measure the right things so we can manage the right things? How do we preserve space for individual exploration while also asking our children to hit a high score? Is there any way to channel the collective thirst for metrics and data into efforts that actually make our schools and our communities healthier and our children more successful?
The modern era of high-stakes standardized testing kicked into gear at the turn of the twenty-first century, with federal No Child Left Behind legislation mandating annual math and reading tests for public school children beginning in third grade. It has not been a golden age. Standardized testing has risen from troubling beginnings to become a $2 billion industry controlled by a handful of companies and backed by some of the world’s wealthiest men and women.
The near-universally despised bubble tests are now being used to decide the fates of not only individual students but also their teachers, schools, districts, and entire state education systems—even though these tests have little validity when applied this way.
Attaching high stakes to the outcomes of individual tests is an error that economists call “Goodhart’s law” and psychologists call “Campbell’s Law.” This has been stated most simply as: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
If you give people a single number to hit, they will work toward that number to the detriment of all other dimensions of success. The more you turn up the pressure to hit that number, the worse the distortion and corruption gets.
A recent example of Goodhart’s law is the 2008 case of thousands of pounds of Chinese infant formula and milk powder adulterated with toxic melamine. Why would you add something like this to food in the first place? Melamine is a nitrogen-based industrial compound. Dairy products are tested for their protein content to ensure good nutritional quality. But most tests of the level of protein in food actually just check for the element nitrogen, as protein is the only wholesome source of nitrogen in food. So adding melamine powder to a food raises its apparent nutritional value. The food inspectors asked for a simple number—How much nitrogen is in this?—in place of a more complicated value—Is this a healthy food? And they got what they asked for.
In a 1976 paper, multidisciplinary social scientist Donald Campbell cited educational testing as a case of Goodhart’s law. “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence,” he wrote. “But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”
That undesirable distortion is exactly what is happening today.
The stakes for the state tests currently given annually in public schools are enormous. They determine eligibility for grade promotion and graduation. This shuts out large numbers of minorities, the poor, English language learners, and the learning disabled. They double as performance metrics for teachers, who are being denied tenure and even fired based on their students’ scores. Schools that fail to meet test score targets are sanctioned, lose their leadership, or close; districts and states must give the tests and follow the rules or else lose billions of dollars in federal education aid.
These are only the most obvious, direct effects of testing. The indirect effects of judging our schools with these numbers ripple outward through society.
The Two-Income Trap was a best-selling book cowritten by Elizabeth Warren, now a senator from Massachusetts, with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. It was published four years before the mortgage crisis.
As Jill Lepore summarized in the New Yorker: “With two wage earners and low down payments, middle-class families took on bigger mortgages and contributed to an increase in the cost of housing, especially when families with children paid a premium for property in school districts with high test scores”—test scores that were newly available in the early 2000s thanks to No Child Left Behind and published in many districts.
The feedback loop is closed when rising real estate values result in higher property taxes, meaning even more money flows to the schools that post the best scores.
In the book Warren advocates a universal public voucher system to neutralize the unequal effects of local property taxes on school funding, a position she’s since revised.
Of course there were many factors that contributed to the so-called Great Recession, but a lot of them, like this one, seem to trace back to an overreliance on numbers at the expense of good sense and heedless of the broader social implications.
In any case, the high-stakes madness is going to get worse before it gets better.
In 2015 the phase-in of the Common Core State Standards in forty-two states brings with it new, more difficult, and longer mandatory tests to nearly every classroom in the nation, up to five times a year. Scores are projected to drop sharply—the “Common Core Cliff”— and even more kids, teachers, and schools will be labeled failures as a result.
TEACHING TO THE TEST IS FAILING
The test obsession is making public schools, where nine out of ten American children are enrolled, into unhappy places. Benchmark, practice, field, and diagnostic exams are raising the total number of standardized tests up to thirty-three per year in some districts. Physical education, art, foreign languages, and other vital subjects are going on the block in favor of more drilling on core tested subjects. In one Florida high school a student reported that her brand-new computer lab was in use 124 days out of the 180-day school year for testing and test prep.
Like so many other Gen X and Gen Y parents, I’m committed to sending my daughter to a public school, both because private school would be a financial stretch for our family and because I have a strong personal belief in public schools as the building block of democracy. But I can’t ignore what I’ve been hearing.
Parents are sending kids to public schools with high test scores and great reputations, only to come up against an unyielding rigidity that I trace directly back to The Tests. In poorer districts, teaching to the test is even more likely to replace the other activities that students desperately need.
The charter schools that are supposed to provide educational choice are captive to data-driven decision making that results in even more test score obsession to please lawmakers and private donors with good-looking figures.
I’ve heard from parents whose kindergartner was shy at first, so she got placed in the slow reading group. Or everything was fine until third grade, the first testing year, and then their son started getting stomachaches every night. Or their twins, who were reading grade levels ahead of the rest of the class, wanted to bring in their own books, and the teacher said no. Or their daughter is a great reader who overthinks the answers on multiple-choice questions. Or their son loves math but is frustrated by the long word problems with written explanations used to satisfy the Common Core State Standards.
Whatever subject the kid hates the most, “targeted interventions” on that subject grow to take over all of school. Instead of customizing learning to each student, standardization dictates one best way. In the end it seems pretty much everyone gets left out.
Here’s what’s so insidious about this test creep. It’s something I didn’t realize before I had my daughter: it’s not just the child who takes the tests. I can tell you all day that I want my kid to be a natural learner, immersed in her passions, following her bliss, unfolding like a flower just at her own pace, but don’t I know the exact day, week, and month when she said her first word? Don’t my husband and I keep a Google doc tally of all of her milestones? Don’t we use the G word—genius—unironically, several times a day, to label a child who’s barely potty trained?
Rationally, I know how crazy this obsession with metrics and data is, how counterproductive. I could talk to you all day about developmental variations and multiple intelligences and student-driven learning. But I think it’s a natural human instinct, brought to excess by the anxious times we live in, that just wants my daughter to be the winner, even when I know winning is beside the point, even when I know it would be good for her to lose sometimes. I know I’m not the only parent out there with these tiger tendencies. And I know this tension has got to be resolved somehow if we are to move forward.
As the mother of a preschooler, my highest priority is to protect her innate resilience, curiosity, and joy. One huge threat to that is sixteen years of high-stakes, high-pressure, highly regimented schooling and testing. I wrote this book to give you and me the tools to build a shield.
The Test is a tour of our test-obsessed culture. Part 1 is “The Problem.” We’ll look at the troubling history of standardized testing and the mystery of human intelligence: What is it, exactly, and does it really exist? Then we’ll continue into the Cold War birth of today’s testing mania and the toll it is taking across our education system.
The second half of the book is “The Solutions.” I visit the schools, labs, and other sites where educators and innovators are moving beyond the limitations and distortions of today’s high-stakes standardized tests. What if evaluation and feedback could be an integral, joyful part of the learning process? What if the data schools collect actually served our communities? This book has a positive vision for accountability that really works.
In the last chapter I’ll give you an actionable set of strategies borrowed from fields like games, neuroscience, social psychology, and ancient philosophy to help children do as well as they can on tests and, more important, to use the experience of test taking to do better in life.
I use a simple acronym, TEST, to remember these win-win strategies.
Manage the Test: Realize what the tests are for and how they work, and come up with a strategy to take them well.
Manage Emotions and Energy: Emotional intelligence and the mind-body connection can be cultivated for optimal performance in school and in life.
Manage Self-Motivation: Successful children set their own goalposts instead of abiding by external marks. Motivation and effort matter most. For these the child has to take the lead.
Manage your Tone: Instead of focusing on preparing your child, focus on your own attitude and the messages you’re sending as a parent.
THE TESTING ARMS RACE
While we subject our offspring to endless measurement, what is really being tested? It’s our values as parents—the kind of kids we want to raise and the kind of society we want to have. The testing obsession is damaging our education system. It is damaging our children. But our society is locked into a testing arms race. The parents who have the most time, energy, and resources are afraid to stop playing the testing game for fear their children will be left behind. The schools that serve the children with the fewest resources are even more determined to push them toward standardized test performances that can somehow make up for everything else they lack.
Some parents will read this book and decide not to subject their kids to any more tests. Some will find ways to make the testing experience better. Some, I hope, will be inspired to work toward a collective solution. Whatever you choose, as parents we can—we must—transform our families’ relationships to these tests.
How do we keep our own parental anxieties in check to build corresponding resilience and calm in our children?
How do we let our children be who they are while also motivating them to be the best they can be?
How do we build a world where every child is challenged to achieve her own personal best?
The answer is not multiple choice.