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."