The Failing Grade for Tests

In the final installment of our series, a panel of education experts describes what evaluation and accountability look like in the perfect world.

A blue chalkboard with a sketch of a checkmark. There is white chalk and an eraser on the ledge of the chalkboard.
Guillermo del Olmo / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

This is the seventh—and final—installment in our series about school in a perfect world. Read previous entries on calendars, content, homework, teachers, classrooms, and classifications.

We asked prominent voices in education—from policy makers and teachers to activists and parents—to look beyond laws, politics, and funding and imagine a utopian system of learning. They went back to the drawing board—and the chalkboard—to build an educational Garden of Eden. We’ve published their answers to one question each day this week. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Today’s assignment: The Evaluation. How are schools held accountable?

But first, in honor of the series’ final installment, we’re including a brief note from U.S. Education Secretary John King that outlines his vision of the ideal school:

The ideal school wouldn’t need to be fancy but it would be clean and painted, the floors polished, the windows sparkling. The adults would treat it like a temple to learning, communicating to students, teachers, parents, and community members that what goes on there is important and worthy of their best efforts. The school’s leader would teach part-time and spend a lot of time in classrooms observing, to give his colleagues clear, actionable feedback on how to improve their practice. Teachers would write the school’s curriculum, with the goal of preparing all students for success after high school, in college or careers. They would assign their students work worth doing—from reading meaningful literature to stressing problem solving in mathematics to using original documents in social studies and teaching science through experiments. The curriculum would include music, art, dance, and physical education. The students at the ideal school would be racially diverse, speak different languages, and practice different religions. Students from well-off families would study side by side with those from modest circumstances. The teachers would also be diverse, so students would see persons of color in positions of authority. A health clinic, a social worker, and a mental-health counselor would serve students and their families. The ideal school would be a place where students want to show up every day, parents are involved and confident their students are being well served, and the adults in the building enthusiastically embrace their responsibility to do whatever it might take to help students succeed.

Rita Pin Ahrens, the director of education policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

Schools will be held accountable through the assessment of students against both state and national standards. The United States needs to get over its hang up with the idea of national standards. National standards for college, career, and civic readiness will create efficiencies in developing common evaluation measures.  Some of these measures will be collected through standardized tests, but other measures might be collected through independent inspection of schools by a state, and, when necessary, a federal review team. This will ensure that schools are not only meeting the academic needs of students, but are also complying with state and federal expectations for protecting the civil rights of students and safeguarding students’ well being.

Nicholson Baker, the author of Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids

I enjoyed taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills when I was small, but that was when it was the only standardized test there was. Now there are do-or-die assessments and quickie placement quizzes every time a kid turns around. Parents are opting out of statewide tests in large numbers because they see that the results are being misused.

Keep it local, keep it real, and relax. Make sure every kid can sound out words by fourth grade.  Spelling tips are extremely useful, too, because English, let's face it, is a perversely spelled language. Human knowledge is vast and fractal and beautiful—and it's crowd-sourced. There's too much going on in the instantly accessible cultural fiesta of contemporary life for schools to be able to test anything beyond the basics in a meaningful way.

We remember what we need to know.

Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education

There was never a day in my 25 years as a teacher and principal that I did not feel accountable to my students and the community I served. I felt accountable for students’ safety, academic learning and socio-emotional growth.  All of the above matter, though some are not as easy to measure as others. Which of the above do you think parents want schools to ignore? Yet test scores are the only measures we value.

Our national obsession with test scores as the measure of school quality has not only not produced progress, but it is breaking our public-school system apart. We have had a decade and a half of this misguided focus. It must stop.

Schools will first and foremost be accountable to the community that they serve. As we move further into an era of school privatization and choice in the name of accountability, ironically, schools are moving further away from community oversight and governance. If we return to community schools and ask our communities what they value, we can start to determine what true accountability should be and how it can best be measured.

The academically highest performing nations in the world, such as Finland, are not obsessed with testing and “accountability.”  They focus instead on school improvement, equity, and closing opportunity gaps.  It’s time we follow their lead.

Catherine Cushinberry, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools

There will be no standardized nationwide or statewide tests or common evaluation measures. Students learn in different ways and have different ways of articulating what they learn. Some students may show it better through song or art while others might prefer to create or build something to illustrate what they’ve learned. The measure or standard of excellence has to be set by a community with families, teachers, administrators, and students represented. The “standard” for that school or district will be created and will be re-evaluated, much like a strategic plan, every 3 to 5 years. We live in a global society and we tend to have a desire to compare how we are doing nationally to what is going on internationally. We usually use metrics to determine where we ranked compared at the state, national, and international level. This will be incorporated in the community thinking as they determine the measures for success.

Michael Horn, the co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute

When a student is educated with taxpayer dollars, the taxpaying public is also a stakeholder in that schooling. Accountability is important, but it will look different. Instead of focusing on arbitrary measures of what a student doesn’t know on a specific date, we will focus on the individual growth of each child. We’ll have systems of assessments where we don’t pit “formative” against “summative.” In a competency-based system, every assessment will be both of learning — students don’t move on unless they master the competencies — and for learning — the results of the assessment will help educators and students determine what to do next. Assessments will be significantly smaller and, given that all of them will be for learning, they will not  interrupt learning. And we will use both objective assessments — with multiple-choice items and the like — for more basic competencies and performance assessments in which students tackle rich projects and showcase their ability to apply what they have learned in meaningful ways.

We won’t have a nationwide standardized test. We will align systems by using a common matrix-based assessment, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in which no one student takes the whole test. Instead, several students each take a fraction of the test and a few thousand test takers can give an accurate picture of the results.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation

The demise of the ill-fated No Child Left Behind Act underlines the importance of getting accountability right. Albert Shanker, the former American Federation of Teachers president, noted that systems which hold teachers accountable for student performance but include no consequences for students themselves, set up a bizarre situation: Students know if they fail, they will not be punished, but their teachers will be. Shanker also knew that differing state-by-state standards will lead to inequality between jurisdictions and inefficiency in a society in which families frequently move from state to state.

A better system will provide for joint accountability among students and teachers. It will also recognize that schools are about more than producing math and reading scores. Schools want to graduate young adults who are good people as well as smart ones, who learn empathy and compassion as well as numeracy and literacy. Most of all, schools need to produce good citizens in a pluralistic democracy and employees who know how to thrive in an increasingly diverse society. The number one reason employees are fired is not for incompetence but for the inability to get along with co-workers, including those of different backgrounds. Accountability measures must connect better to these broader goals of public education.

Michelle Rhee, the founder of StudentsFirst and the former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools

Teachers and schools of the future will be held accountable for providing an excellent school to all children, regardless of their zip code. There will be high-quality standards that will ensure kids are receiving the education they deserve and there will be high-quality, robust, and authentic assessments to measure their progress toward the standards. Schools, principals, teachers, and parents will work together to make sure kids are thriving and receiving the support they need to reach their full potential.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers

Are we creating schools where kids thrive? If we have, how did we do it? If not, why not? And what needs to change to put us on a better path?

No one-size-fits-all nationwide compliance system based on an annual math-and-English test that is used to close schools, fire teachers, and hold back children is going to help kids pursue their dreams.

When it comes to testing, tests should inform—not drive—instruction. If we want to use test data to measure progress, we have a gold standard—the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which take a randomly sampled national snapshot and provide a clear sense of where we’re succeeding and where we’re falling short.

But we need to be accountable to our schools and educators, not just demand accountability from them. Real accountability should include considering whether a school has the resources its students need. Are there books for every student? Is the building safe? Is the water clean? Are music, art, and physical education available? Can kids see a counselor if something’s wrong at home? Is the library open? Does the broadband work? If we can’t answer questions like that with a resounding yes, how can we fairly judge the work of educators in the classroom—much less make decisions like firing and promotion—when educators lack the basic supports and resources to provide a positive learning environment for students?