Standardized Testing – Essential to Improvement and Accountability

June 2023

For those who demonize standardized testing, I’ve got to say we’re just going to have to disagree on that.

There is nothing more important than holding our education system accountable to do it’s job in the best possible way, and there is no way to make sure that happens without having some kind of measurement.

And the only way to measure is to have an agreed-upon, objective standard that is not dependent on those being measured.

If you are running a business, there is no other metric that counts except profitability.

You may define “acceptable profit” as a different number depending on your goals – you may be happy making nothing beyond what it costs to keep the business running, your target may be to exceed what you could make with the same amount of money in CD’s, or you may have higher targets – but you DO have targets.

Speaking as someone who spent decades in charge of service in organizations that won awards for their service, I can tell you anyone who says “I don’t care about anything but customer happiness” is lying to you.

Customer happiness is certainly the most important thing to keep a business thriving, but it means nothing if there is no measurable profit, because having customers happy with a business that can’t pay it’s employees and stay in business is a meaningless thing. Maintaining happy customers is usually also dependent on having the money you need to put into things that do that.

And generating a profit always means convincing customers that you’re doing something they want in a way that is better than the competition. Period.

In schools, of course “profit” in dollars is not a thing. “Profit” in schools is the value provided to parents in the quality of education given to their kids.

Normally, parents who felt they were not being provided with that value would signal that by simply moving their kids elsewhere. But we don’t have school choice in this state, so doing that is difficult for some, impossible for most.

Our schools have guaranteed income no matter how well they do their jobs, and their customers can’t leave no matter how poorly they feel it is being done.

In an ideal world, every parent would be deeply involved in their child’s education. They would know all the teachers and have frequent contact with them, they would volunteer in the classrooms, they would sit down with the principal periodically, they would sit on the site council, they would serve on the PTO’s, the LCAP Committees, they would attend every school board meeting and speak up.

But that doesn’t happen. In part because it’s a huge burden on a lot of parents. Many families simply don’t have time for that – particularly if they have multiple children.

My family was very fortunate. When I was out working 6 days a week to make sure we had money to make the mortgage and put food on the table, my wife was able to do all the volunteering and stay in close touch with teachers. When I was lucky enough to be able to back off the work schedule I stepped in to help with that and served in various ways that gave me much greater insight into what was happening.

We can’t expect all families to be fortunate enough to do that, even if they wanted to. That’s just not practical.

Hence the need for standardized tests.

What if we did not have them? What if every school or district got to decide how it was going to measure and report their performance?

Can you imagine we would see anything but “A+” on those report cards? For everything?

I remember having a teacher once who let us determine our own grade. When it was my turn to sit down with him, I said “I want an A+”. He asked “really?” I said “what else would you expect me to ask for?” (I got it, by the way….)

Human nature.

We NEED objective, outside measures for performance. We simply cannot expect to judge the performance of our schools based on their own evaluation of themselves.

Anyone who does not understand this does not understand human nature, or how improvement happens.

Things like the NAEP, SAT, and ACT testing are how that is done. As we see in the linked article, that individual state testing has been drifting to the lowest common denominator more and more over the years. California’s SBAC testing is an example of that.

If you don’t think so, tell me WHY you feel that would not just happen naturally, especially given the evidence – from data – that it IS happening?

Is that a bit rough on our kids? Yes, it can be.

We have many issues with standardized testing as it exists. Making sure the tests actually test what we want our kids to learn is issue number one. Keeping the testing down to a minimum is another. And making sure teachers don’t have to spend the entire time in test prep is a third.

Is “teaching to the test” on that list? No.

Because if we agree that the test is testing what parents want (arguable, of course), then “teaching to the test” simply means our education system is teaching the things that parents want them to teach. If you want the education to teach math, and the test has math questions on it, all that test does is verify the kids are being taught what you want.

In trade schools, graduating from an auto mechanic program means you’ve demonstrated to the instructor that you can replace brakes properly and safely. You are tested on that.

Would anyone want to have a mechanic doing a brake job on their car without having proven they know how to do it? Would you just take the word of the trade school that “everyone who graduates with our auto mechanic degree is good at replacing brakes” just because they say so?

In education, graduating from high school should mean you’ve demonstrated to the teacher that you’ve learned English, Math, Science, History, and perhaps other subjects to the extent that has been determined necessary to aid in success in life.

Would anyone want to have their child going on to life without having proven they know those things? Would you just take the word of the school that “everyone who graduates with our diploma is good at core subjects” just because they say so?

I would be the first to agree that not all parents want the same things for the education of their kids. Again, school choice is the answer.

But even parents who embrace other education options should demand that those options prove to them that they’re providing the education they want for their kids.

The only education option that doesn’t really need objective metrics? Homeschooling. If you are your child’s teacher and are paying the costs, you know how they’re learning and you know where your money is going. It is the ultimate in “volunteering in the classroom”.

Barring true school choice, “closing the honesty gap” is literally the most important thing we could do to make sure our kids are being provided with the education that we’re all paying for and expecting of our education system.

In private industry they say “inspect what you expect”. The same should apply to our schools. For more on the validity of standardized testing as a predictor of future outcomes for kids, here’s a great article studying the most recent data on that.