Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, is a scathing indictment of our society’s test-and-punish school regime, formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and continuing in the most recent version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Koretz, the testing specialist, is not so critical of standardized testing itself as he is of the high stakes sanctions that Congress attached to the annual tests in No Child Left Behind—punishments that have driven massive pressure on educators that has ruined our public schools:
“Pressure to raise scores on achievement tests dominates American education today. It shapes what is taught and how it is taught. It influences the problems students are given in math class (often questions from earlier tests), the materials they are given to read, the essays and other work they are required to produce, and often the manner in which teachers grade this work. It determines which educators are rewarded, punished, and even fired. In many cases it determines which students are promoted or graduate. This is the result of decades of ‘education reforms’ that progressively expanded the amount of externally imposed testing and ratcheted up the pressure to raise scores.” (p. 1)
Daniel Koretz’s biography at the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes him as an expert on educational assessment and testing policy, and the book describes in considerable detail just how high stakes punishments for schools and teachers have corrupted the results of the tests themselves, narrowed the curriculum, and degraded teaching.
But my deepest interest in the book is Koretz’s depiction of how the testing that was supposed force teachers and schools to better serve poor children, raise their test scores and close achievement gaps has instead truncated opportunity for the very children it was supposed to help. How has test-and-punish narrowed the curriculum to basic reading and math in the poorest schools, and how has it forced teachers to focus on test-prep and coaching instead of enrichment? How has test-and-punish forced the closing or charterizing of schools in poor neighborhoods? How has evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores resulted in firing principals and teachers in the poorest schools and exacerbated staff turnover? And what about the children being held back in third grade due to a test score—even when they may be making real progress in reading and the adolescents denied a high school diploma?
Under current federal law, students and schools are given credit for proficiency only when children reach benchmark proficiency scores. A fourth grader who advances during the school year from a first to a third grade reading level will still fail to achieve the fourth grade cut score. Neither the child nor the teacher will be given credit for the child’s improvement: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)
Reformers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124) Koretz explains at length and in detail the ways that teachers and principals whose jobs are threatened have resorted to raising scores—coaching for the test, drilling on materials likely to be covered, and in some cases where the pressure was greatest, cheating by erasing and correcting scores.
Koretz quotes Linda Darling-Hammond’s characterization of test-and-punish school accountability: “the kick the dog harder model of education reform.” And he explains: “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201) He suggests first that we stop judging all students and schools by benchmark scores. We must “set goals based on students’ growth, not the level of their performance.” (p. 235)
While I have emphasized the sections in which Koretz shows test-and-punish hurting the schools that serve the poorest and most vulnerable children, Koretz is a testing expert, whose primary interest is how high stakes punishments attached to a regime of universal testing have corrupted the entire operation of public schools: “Reformers may take umbrage and say that they certainly didn’t demand that teachers cheat. They didn’t, although in fact many policy makers actively encouraged bad test prep that produced fraudulent gains. What they did demand was unrelenting and often very large gains that many teachers couldn’t produce through better instruction, and they left them with inadequate supports as they struggled to meet these often unrealistic targets. They gave many educators the choice I wrote about thirty years ago—fail, cut corners, or cheat—and many chose not to fail.” (p.244)
Koretz joins a growing number of critics who indict test-and-punish school accountability. What is significant about this book is the thorough and relentless critique by a testing expert who carefully and sometimes technically dissects the evidence.