Anya Kamenetz is very clear when she says she didn’t set out to write about standardized testing. A 2014 New America fellow and lead education blogger at National Public Radio, she had already written two books about the future of education and wanted her next project to be about innovations in K-12 education. But as she began researching her new book, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don't Have to Be, she found something surprising: Innovations weren’t at the center of the story for K-12. At best, they were at the margins, always seemed difficult to incorporate. Why? Because of a social and political obsession with standardized testing in America. In order to write accurately about improving K-12 education, she had to write about what she calls "the gorilla in the room."

In writing The Test, Kamenetz traced the history of testing back to its 19th-century origins and found that this gorilla is not the answer to the question of how to build an equality-based meritocracy. On the contrary, she told the audience at a recent New America event: "The more we try to make them [standardized tests] an instrument of increasing equality, the more they’re going to fail us and the kids who really need most of our help and support."

How will testing fail America? As the country becomes more standardized in the classroom, it risks eradicating difference among students, said Kevin Carey, New America’s Education Policy Program Director, cultivating classrooms of robots rather than unicorns. One of the key points The Test makes, according to Carey, is that minimizing difference isn’t necessarily the same thing as minimizing ignorance.

Kamenetz diagnoses two major flaws in America’s testing boom: the lack of transparency about the content of the tests themselves (which she says stifles a robust public discussion about their efficacy) and the punitive dimensions of high-stakes testing. As she put it, "There are some carrots in the No Child Left Behind law, but mostly there are sticks."

Yet for Maurice Sykes, author of Doing the Right Thing for Children: Eight Qualities of Leadership, pursuing equality in education isn’t about finding the right way or wrong way to test kids—it’s about reconsidering how society envisions children overall. Based on the current obsession with testing, "our vision of children is that we can assess their development like an assembly line," declared Sykes, who advocates instead for "multiple ways of measuring intelligence." Unfortunately, even with the advent of the more recent Common Core Standards, says Kamenetz, not much has changed when it comes to testing. The Common Core tests are more difficult, but they offer little room for improvement over No Child Left Behind because the format of the tests themselves isn’t substantially different—for example, neither test higher-order thinking like problem solving or critical thinking.

Sykes also raised the thorny issue of the purported "achievement gap," or persistent disparity of educational measures across race, class, and gender lines. For Kamenetz, this disparity is a "tautology masquerading as a problem." Citing a study of students in North Carolina that indicated 85 percent of variation in test scores could be predicted by family income, she asked, why—if income is such a strong predictor—do "we need to administer a test to define what’s happening to these children?"

High-stakes testing has failed as a stand-alone measure of performance for students, teachers, schools, and districts, according to Kamenetz, but the question of useful alternatives is complicated and without an easy answer. The Test, for instance, documents the growing movement of parents who "opt out" of testing. "People leave when they feel that they’re not getting what they want," explained Kamenetz. At the same time, though, numbers continue to wield enormous power. "How many people in this room remember what they got on their SATs?" Kamenetz asked the audience, to a show of at least a dozen hands. Rather than dismissing the validity of "our thirst for metrics and data," which she recognizes is profoundly compelling to parents, Kamenetz said The Test makes a simple argument: "Your analytics are only as good as your underlying data. So let’s really peel back the curtain and see what we really have here."

As critics ponder alternatives, they must also consider assessment and accountability. Carey pointed to "robots, monkeys, butterflies, and unicorns"—the four examples that Kamenetz uses in her book to describe how assessment measurement could be improved. Her book’s takeaway is that America needs to take the "Team Unicorn" approach, which uses existing standardized tests but combines them with individualized measurements like portfolios and performances. Doing away with standardized testing across the board isn’t a realistically feasible option, but adopting a strategy that uses both can help generate data while remaining mindful that tests are far from the only way to assess learning.

So in the meantime, as the country's education system considers how it uses tests and what the best tests might look like, what should parents (and all of the rest of us) be doing? Kamenetz, who suggests in The Test that parents should opt out of testing when they can, affirms that for accountability to be meaningful, it should be community-based—measured by a community’s social norms and cultural values. Sykes cited the recent moves toward universal pre-kindergarten as an opportunity to re-think how the U.S. uses testing to measure child development. Kamenetz had some specific advice for parents in the audience: "The more you understand about how these tests work, the less afraid of them you are and the better you’re going to do at them."

With The Test now in bookstores and sparking conversations across the country, what hopes does Kamenetz have for future innovations in K-12 education? The solution for addressing the "gorilla in the room" is separating testing from consequences or combining the two differently. The upshot for her is that the interlinked problems of testing obsession and educational inequality are "bigger than the people in this room" and "it’s going to take more than the education system to solve [them]."


This post appears courtesy of  New America's Weekly Wonk magazine.