Testing and Teaching

The spate of cheating stories on the web has pretty naturally given rise to a spate of people who oppose high-stakes testing saying "See?  Testing's bad!"  I think this response from Matt Yglesias is spot on:

Something that I think drives at least some of my disagreements with other liberals about education policy is that I think a lot of middle class liberals implicitly underestimate the extent of really bad learning outcomes. Take this report (PDF) from the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund which notes "that 47% of adults (more than 200,000 individuals) in the City of Detroit are functionally illiterate, referring to the inability of an individual to use reading, speaking, writing, and computational skills in everyday life situations" and also that "within the tricounty region, there are a number of municipalities with illiteracy rates rivaling Detroit: Southfield at 24%, Warren at 17%, Inkster at 34%, Pontiac at 34%."

Under those circumstances, I find it difficult to be seized with worry that schools are going to be ruined by teachers "teaching to the test" too much. It is true that school districts that have started taking testing more seriously now need to step up and also take the possibility of outright cheating more seriously. But the fact that huge numbers of kids are passing through school systems and not learning basic literacy drives home the fact that districts also need to take checking to see if the kids are learning anything more seriously. That means tests, and since it's good to be able to compare different schools to one another that means standardized tests. It's a limited tool, it shouldn't be the sole criterion on which the effectiveness of anything is measured, but it's also an important one.

I spend a lot of time fighting over school reform, and even so, when I go to report stories on this, I'm still blown away by the poor quality of the education that many kids receive.  I frequently feel like when I'm arguing education with people, we end up talking about middle class peoples' concerns about their own schools.  We argue about whether the teachers are happy, dedicated professionals; whether "teaching to the test" is causing teachers to stint on crucial subjects, or robbing students of creativity and critical thinking skills. 


And if you want to worry about that stuff for your own kids' school great.  It will probably benefit the kids in that school.  But while we're arguing about creativity and critical thinking, for the most vulnerable students in society, schools are failing at their most crucial task: teaching kids to read and add.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be aware of the severe limitations of tests.  We need to be vigilant about cheating, and we need to have other metrics as well.  But the fact that measurements are imperfect is not an argument for not measuring--and it's also not an argument for relying entirely on metrics with even less objective correlation.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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