Leaving Standardized Testing Behind

   < < Go Back

by Haley Sweetland Edwards,

from TIME Magazine,

The backlash against standardized tests has left lawmakers searching for ways to keep parents happy yet still hold schools, and students, accountable.

If you had wandered late last year into Matthew Tosiello’s third-grade science class at Abingdon Elementary School in Virginia, you would have encountered an army of frogs. Origami frogs, that is–palm-size critters made of green index cards, each equipped with a tongue made of either masking tape or water-sodden paper.

Tosiello had asked his 8- and 9-year-old students to design an experiment to determine which natural adaptation–a sticky tongue or a wet tongue–was better for lapping up flies, a role played by eraser-size chads left over from a three-hole punch. The kids then had to describe their hypotheses, methods and findings in a lab report.

It may not have looked like it from a distance–there were no blue books or timed segments, and the classroom was far from silent–but the origami-frog project was actually an exam. A Virginia law that went into effect this year eliminated a handful of mandatory, fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests in public schools, including one for third-grade science. Instead, the law asked teachers to perform “alternative assessments”–performance-based projects to monitor students’ progress.

Virginia’s move away from standardized testing is a reflection of a seismic shift in public opinion across the country about tests in schools. For the past two decades, the trend in federal, state and local education-policy circles has been to require more and more standardized exams as a way to establish common benchmarks of achievement and to hold schools accountable for their students’ progress. But in recent years, teachers, students, parents and lawmakers from both ends of the ideological spectrum have begun to revolt.

In a speech in January, Arizona state superintendent Diane Douglas … echoing prominent officials in Seattle; Denver; Los Angeles; Long Island, New York; and Newark, N.J., all of whom have recently recommended reducing or eliminating tests or the consequences associated with low scores. In addition to Virginia, a handful of other states, including Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina, voted last year to peel back the number of state-mandated exams.

The testing issue is front and center on the national stage too. Lawmakers have promised that in the next five months they will revise and possibly repeal No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that has the power to impose major consequences on schools whose students tend to test poorly. At stake in this decision is not only the future of standardized testing and federal accountability measures in the country.

Party Strife

The debate over testing has fractured both parties. Tea Party–backed and social conservatives, including presidential hopefuls like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, decry the entirety of No Child Left Behind. The testing, the sanctions, the clumsy system of waivers–all of it amounts to shameless government overreach into what ought to be a local matter, they say.

Establishment and corporate-side Republicans, meanwhile, typically support the law as a valuable accountability tool.

Middle-of-the-road Republican presidential hopefuls like former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will likely walk a tightrope between the two wings of their party, calling for both accountability measures and devolution of power to the states.

Democrats are similarly divided. Their liberal wing, which traditionally leans on the teachers’ unions as pillars of support, objects to No Child Left Behind for forcing teachers to “teach to the test,” molding children into automatons and sacrificing critical-thinking skills at the altar of filling in the right bubble.

Hillary Clinton, the as-yet-undeclared Democratic front runner, has not ventured a position on what should happen with No Child Left Behind, but she, like most moderate Republican contenders, may find herself performing a balancing act. As a Senator, she voted for the law in 2001, but on the campaign trail six years later, she opposed “overtesting.”

The strangest part about the testing debate is that almost everyone involved seems to agree on the most important issues. A strong consensus is easy to find for the idea of measuring how students are progressing compared with their peers in different regions and of different races.

But if there is a commonly held goal, the question of how to get there remains.

More From TIME Magazine: