A Gloomy Perspective on High-stakes Testing – by Dan Goldhaber

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The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better
by Daniel Koretz
University of Chicago Press, 2017, $25; 288 pages.

As reviewed by Dan Goldhaber

The title of his latest book telegraphs where Harvard education professor Daniel Koretz stands on one of today’s most contentious schooling issues: high-stakes testing. In short, this book is about “the failures of test-based accountability.”

Koretz is an expert on testing and related policy, and his knowledge shines through in the book’s early chapters, in which he discusses what tests are—and importantly, what they aren’t. In particular, Koretz reminds us that because we cannot test for everything, tests only capture a slice of the academic and other skills we expect schools to help students master. Koretz also reminds us of the history of testing as a policy tool: test-based accountability long predates the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), suggesting that the passage of NCLB’s successor in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is unlikely to eliminate it.

The book gets to the heart of the matter in Chapter 4 on “Campbell’s Law.” This principle, penned by the social scientist Donald T. Campbell in 1976, suggests that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Koretz uses this precept to frame the discussion of test-based accountability efforts as well as more in-depth discussion in later chapters about some of the more pernicious corruptions of test-based accountability: artificial test-score inflation, undesirable types of test preparation, and outright cheating.

Koretz shows that using tests to hold schools and educators accountable for student achievement can lead to behaviors that don’t support genuine learning. But here the portrayal feels slanted. For instance, Koretz states that “cheating has become a widespread scourge in our schools.” Yet he concedes there is no way to know the prevalence of cheating, and notes that a well-cited study on cheating’s prevalence in the Chicago public schools suggests that it occurs in 4 to 5 percent of elementary classrooms annually (see “To Catch a Cheat,” research, Winter 2004). Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that Koretz points to the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) as a prime example of the scourge of cheating. It stands to reason that cheating might proliferate there: DCPS’s IMPACT accountability system (which uses test scores and other measures) is one of the most high-stakes in the country. However, a series of studies by Thomas Dee and James Wyckoff show fairly conclusively that IMPACT has had a positive effect on teacher quality (see “A Lasting Impact,” research, Fall 2017). Moreover, DCPS students show impressive gains over the last decade, not only on district tests but also on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and math assessments. The NAEP progress is particularly relevant here, since throughout the book, Koretz treats NAEP as the gold-standard “audit test,” that is, …read more    

13/08/2020 |

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