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Keep Testing Alive -- But Right-Size Assessments

January 5, 2018 4 minute Read by William McKenzie
Lessons Learned from The A Word: Accountability-The Dirty Word of Today's Education Reform

Standardized exams often get pilloried in the larger culture, where their use is equated with disrupting classroom instruction, pressuring kids, and shaming schools. 

Interestingly, though, the educators the Bush Institute recently interviewed for The A Word defend their use. They consider standardized exams as tools to improve student achievement. By objectively identifying classroom strengths and deficiencies, the exams provide a roadmap for educators and school leaders to help students learn. 

Data from the exams also allow state education leaders to look across all their districts, compare results, and apply resources to struggling schools. States may not always succeed in doing this, but that is the reason for a school accountability system. As Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. Education secretary, put it, ""You can't solve a problem that you don't diagnose correctly, fairly, accurately, and comparably."  

At the same time, educators like Texas Superintendent Danny King contend that states and school districts must find the right balance and level of assessments. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) required only annual, independent exams in reading and math in grades three thru eight and only once in high school for those subjects. It also required testing science just once in each grade span. (NCLB's successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, maintains those requirements.) But states and districts have added to the testing load with their own assessments. "We got caught up with the idea that if a little bit of testing is good, a lot more will be a lot better,” King observed. 

Districts particularly have compounded testing with their own benchmark exams. Districts use those tests to repeatedly track student progress. A 2014 Center for American Progress analysis found that districts actually require more exams than states. 

Right-sizing testing will require a lot of coordination among states and districts. But it is an important part of the next wave of school accountability. Even Spellings, a proponent of standardized exams, concludes that over-testing has “come to no good end.” 

Controlling the amount of testing also could eliminate some of the perverse behaviors that have risen alongside the use of standardized exams. One of those is so-called "teaching to the test." Critics use that phrase to contend that standardized tests have forced classrooms to simply focus on preparing students for year-end exams. 

Undoubtedly, some educators do “teach to the test.” But that approach is not good teaching. Kevin Huffman, Tennessee's former education commissioner, explains in his A Word interview that research does not support the notion that test prep leads to better results. 

Finally, a revised use of assessments should include getting test results back to schools in a faster way. Having to wait several months for the data makes it hard for schools to use the results to improve instruction and achievement. 

The technology exists, so states need to use it to get campuses the results they need to take action, much like how Summit Public Schools does. Diane Tavenner, the founder and CEO of the charter school network, reports that Summit schools use data in a real-time way to improve each school’s work. As she concluded, “We use the data and information to get ourselves back on track towards where we want to go." 

That, of course, is the ultimate aim of school accountability.

 


Author

William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he co-teaches an education policy class at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He also participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News and The Weekly Standard.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

Full Bio

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