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Is ‘The Test’ failing American schools?

As Congress considers revisions to the No Child Left Behind education law, there’s a larger debate about the role and efficacy of using standardized tests as assessment. Anya Kamenetz, author of “The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing, But You Don't Have To Be,” joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the evolving role of testing and the “big, unintended consequences.”

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    As Congress begins to tackle a new federal education law that would succeed No Child Left Behind, one of the major dividing lines is already clear. What is the proper role and use of testing?

    It's a question that has long touched a raw nerve among parents and educators.

    A new book explores that controversy and testing's possible future.

    Hari Sreenivasan has our conversation from our New York studios.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    On the one hand, parents know their children's talents can't be quantified by multiple choice tests. At the same time, they often want their children to do well on high-stakes exams.

    A new book explores those issues and a growing backlash against testing in many circles. It's called "The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, But You Don't Have to Be."

    The author and NPR's lead education blogger, Anya Kamenetz, joins us now.

    So, it's been, what, a dozen years since No Child Left Behind, several years since the Race to the Top. Now we're starting to roll out Common Core. And as soon as I say these phrases, there are parents that are just already bracing themselves. But our kids are not at the competencies that were the goal. And your book really says, in part, testing is contributing to the problem.

  • ANYA KAMENETZ, Author, The Test:

    Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, But You Don't Have to Be: Yes, you know, it really is a case of big unintended consequences because tests were imposed to have some kind of system of equity and objective measures of how students were doing.

    But because of the high stakes attached to them, districts and schools are increasingly spending more and more time prepping for the tests and also giving benchmark and interim exams up to a high of about 113 by the time students graduate.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Well, 113 tests just seems mind-boggling.

    But we have done several stories about testing on the program. What is it in your research that you have found that most surprised you? Is it about the — sort of the industry that's grown up around it? Is the variance in different states?

  • ANYA KAMENETZ:

    I think it's — you know, considering the stakes, again, that we attach to these tests and the amount of stock that people seem to put in them, when we talk about data-driven decision-making and outcomes, as though this were some measure.

    But, in fact, the psychometricians will tell you that the tests are being used in ways that they were never designed for, and that proficiency, which is dictated in the law, No Child Left Behind, doesn't really have a single scientific definition.

    And so there's a real gap there, I think, between the level of science that we're working with and then the decisions we're making based on those measurements.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It seems the intention was noble, to try to figure out a way to measure the problem. You know, one of — the advocates for testings will say, if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. Right?

    So how do you know which schools are failing if you don't know how the students are doing inside those classrooms?

  • ANYA KAMENETZ:

    Right.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what happened from that noble goal to where we are now?

  • ANYA KAMENETZ:

    Well, the problem is exactly that.

    There is so much that we don't measure within schools, starting with subjects that aren't math and reading. Right? These tests are math- and reading-based only. They don't even test writing very much. So, there's all this — besides all the other school subjects, science, social studies, there's also 21st century skills, creativity, collaboration.

    You can't show those with an individual putting marks on a piece of paper. So the argument from many educators is that they're being forced to take attention away from what might be seen as the most important goals of school in order to focus on producing certain results on tests.

    And as for the argument that we're trying to establish equity by identifying failing schools, in fact, what you see is that the same schools fail over and over again. Income is the strongest predictive factor in the outcome of these tests. And merely measuring schools doesn't necessarily improve the outcomes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mm-hmm.

    So, I mean, are some of the critics kind of throwing the baby out with the bath water, in the sense there's testing, there's measurement, there's standards, and we're kind of lumping it all together? Is there not a role for the federal government in getting all this information together in a way that state governments aren't incentivized to do?

  • ANYA KAMENETZ:

    I think absolutely.

    And I think that you're right. It's a nuanced argument being made now to say that the mistake perhaps was attaching stakes to the tests, because when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. That's kind of an adage in social science.

    And so perhaps the federal government's role should be in data collecting, but without attempting to make decisions about what schools are failing or whether teachers should get assessed a factory rating based on the outcome of a test that we can all agree is questionable in its results.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And you even go back into the history of what some of these tests were designed to do, and you're saying sometimes they weren't actually designed to measure the individual student, but really the sort of collective, and now they're being used almost as political weapons depending on where you fall.

  • ANYA KAMENETZ:

    Well, that's exactly right.

    I mean, this proficiency target idea, whether someone gets a 181 or a 182, who — like a girl in Florida that I profiled, you know, she's being held back in the third grade because she's missed her reading score by one point, and the test that the state was using at that time was never designed to make a specific determination that — that specific about one single student.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There's also this philosophical question on, is testing a good indicator of future outcomes, right?

    So colleges are basing their entrance of certain applicants on two things, usually, a grade-point average and an SAT or ACT test score, maybe some other extracurricular activities. But they're saying based on that, I kind of have an idea of whether you will do well here and then on in the working world.

  • ANYA KAMENETZ:

    Right.

    Well, one of the most interesting kind of emerging factors in the realm of assessment is the idea that half or more of what we need for success is not determined by academic measures at all. It's these noncognitive measures, right, grit, perseverance, right?

    And these things actually can be — they can be assessed through surveys, low-stakes surveys. And the types of surveys that these organizations are doing, in fact, are quite predictive of people's success later on in life, even more so than GPA alone.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, you framed your book a little bit of — in a way of a parent's guide. There are a lot of people who are just getting their kids into the system, realizing how stressful it can be. So, what is a parent to do?

  • ANYA KAMENETZ:

    Well, I give, like you said, a menu of options.

    And the first one is, don't panic. These tests are there, but they weren't handed down from the mountain. They are able to be thought through critically. I give step-by-step instructions for parents who are interested in sitting their kids out or opting out of the tests, which is increasingly kind of a movement.

    And I talk to parents of kids who want to get through the tests and survive, but not have it overtake the child's experience of school, to avoid test anxiety with methods like mindfulness and health and different kinds of things that can help you not only on the test, but also in life.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Anya Kamenetz of NPR, thanks so much.

  • ANYA KAMENETZ:

    Thank you.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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