TCS Daily

Failing the Test

By Arnold Kling - May 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Many conservative education reformers, including President Bush, advocate the use of standardized testing as a tool for evaluating school performance. My knee-jerk liberal friends oppose it. The teachers' unions oppose it.

Ordinarily, this line-up of supporters and opponents would lead me to favor standardized testing. However, having thought about the issue, I believe that standardized testing should be opposed by conservatives - at least by those of us with a libertarian bent.

I have three perspectives on this issue. I can speak to it as an econometrician, as a teacher, and as a parent.

Signal and Noise

As an econometrician, I am prepared to argue that the signal to noise ratio in standardized testing is simply not high enough to support the burdens that its proponents place on it. The random variation in school-wide test scores can be quite high. There are some schools where the annual student turnover rate exceeds 30 percent, which has major effects both on the education process itself and the measurement of results. Even for a stable population, it would take years to obtain a reliable test average.

Even worse, in statistical terminology, school test results are an observational study as opposed to an experiment. In an experiment, the researcher is able to choose two equivalent groups, and have only one factor (the "treatment") differ between the two groups. In an observational study, the effect of the treatment (the school) is blended in with myriad other factors. These factors undermine the reliability of any conclusion that one might attempt to draw.

There are schools where education is taking place, but the population has so many deficits that the scores will indicate a failing school. Conversely, there are school populations which could score well even if classes were conducted by gerbils.

Teacher Accountability

Standardized testing is not a requirement for teacher accountability. There are many alternatives available.

For example, one way to hold teachers accountable is by having outside evaluations. Suppose that you teach a statistics class that is at an advanced high school level, but you did not want to teach to the AP test. Your school could contract with me for an outside evaluation. I could ask to see a copy of your final exam along with your grading criteria. I could review a random sample of the students' papers to make sure that your grading followed your plan. I could look at the overall results on the exam. Using this information, I could make a determination as to whether the material you offered is sufficiently rigorous and whether you were successful in teaching the concepts that you chose to emphasize.

School Accountability

Only a politician could argue that standardized testing is necessary in order to hold schools accountable. Accountable to whom, other than politicians? Test scores are not an accountability tool for parents, who should be the customers of the school system.

To be sure, some parents do use test scores. They will move into school districts with higher test scores. However, the parents who make such a move do not care whether those test scores reflect anything that the school is doing. These parents are not doing educational research - they are simply guessing that their child is better off in the high-scoring school - if nothing else the child will be exposed to high-achieving peers.

For the standardized testing approach to accountability, success by definition means making schools responsive to top-down control. In the case of the Bush administration "reforms," standardized testing increases the leverage of the Federal government over local schools. Any conservative ought to think twice about supporting such a trend.

Schools ought to be accountable to parents. I think that much of what is wrong with public schools today can be traced to the ways in which parents have become dis-empowered by politicians and special interests:
  • Large school districts smother parents with bureaucracy.

    School principals feel more accountable to their administrators than to parents. Many policies are set externally and are beyond the control of the school's teachers or principal.

  • Teachers' unions can control school boards.

    It only bothers me a little that in Montgomery County, Maryland where I live, the teachers' union endorses a slate of school board candidates. It concerns me a lot that nobody ever wins other than the candidates they endorse. There is a diversity of interests in school governance, and that diversity is not represented on the school board. There is no check on the Kudzu-like bureaucracy of curriculum specialists and cluster coordinators, which serves no purpose other than union featherbedding.

  • State and Federal programs come with strings attached.

    Not content with local school performance, the state and Federal government layers have stepped in to "help." This gives schools another constituency of educrats to whom they must answer, further diluting parents' influence.

The forces of centralized control and top-down management of schools are strong already. I can see how standardized testing might help them, but do they need any more help?

The Right Focus

My personal inclination is to support school choice, with so-called "progressive vouchers" (meaning that voucher support would vary inversely with family wealth). However, even within the framework of public schools, my guess is that the route to improvement is more parental empowerment, not centralized testing.

In the 1950's and 1960's, "local control" of public schools got a bad name, because it was associated with racial segregation. But local control itself is a virtue, not a vice. Today, we need to find a way to bring back local control without returning to segregation.

In our school district, the knee-jerk liberal parents complain vociferously about standardized testing. I think that a significant part of their opposition to standardized testing reflects frustration over the ways that parents have been marginalized by the modern public school machine. I share that frustration.

Imagine what might happen if power over schools were re-distributed back to parents. This would require breaking large school districts down to a size that enables meaningful participation by parents. It would require that any state or Federal funding come with no strings attached. It would require local leaders willing to stand up to bureaucracy and union featherbedding.

The focus of school reform ought to be on stripping away the centralized power structures and re-empowering parents. Standardized testing feels to me more like part of the problem than part of the solution.

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