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Research & Resources

Over-testing Diminishes Education

Thomas R. Rosebrough, Ph.D., Executive Dean, College of Education and Human Studies & University Professor of Education

August 16, 2006 - Four years into the No Child Left Behind era in education, states are reporting achievement gains in urban districts that are similar to gains in suburban and rural districts. That is good news. Unfortunately, before we can celebrate, it must also be reported that most of those same districts have schools which are not making “adequate yearly progress.”

How can this be? One answer is that urban schools typically have fewer students who scored at proficient levels when NCLB went into effect. Let’s seek some perspective.

The two great goals in education are academic and social. The most important word in that last sentence is the word “and.” No Child Left Behind is an act of Congress that is based on academic goals which in a phrase is “to give them essentially what they need and test them to make sure they received it.” From this perspective, NCLB shows signs of succeeding. But there are problems.

The Center on Educational Policy, a respected independent research center, in its latest newsletter reports that 71 percent of school districts have reduced elementary school instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics — the subjects tested for by NCLB. Struggling students are receiving double periods of reading or math or both, missing other subjects altogether: subjects like science, history, literature, language, music, art and physical education.

In the name of not leaving any children behind, we are shortchanging students from receiving a good education. Yes, gains are being made in reading and math achievement, especially among traditionally underserved students. Learners are quite resilient; they can figure out what the minimum standard is and meet it. But what is the cost of this narrow focus?

Aside from the $6 billion a year we spend on testing (and the law is still not fully funded), we are squelching creativity in teaching and learning, driving good teachers out of teaching and contributing to the dropout problem by eliminating factors which keep children interested in school.

In a Newsweek column last January, Fareed Zakaria reported on Singapore, the Asian country that is leading the world in high school math and science achievement. Yet the Asians can boast of few of the world’s leading mathematicians or scientists. Singapore’s education minister in a frank interview admits that Asia could learn much from America’s legacy and skill in critical thinking, research, innovation, and creativity. This America was achieved without testa-mania.

In the world of standardized tests there is little creativity encouraged before the test or certainly none during the test. Teachers are dropping out the profession at an alarming rate: 50 percent of teachers in their first five years of teaching leave the profession. Good teachers are losing the very motivation that led them to their profession: affirmation that they are contributing to the greater good.

One out of every three students drops out of high school (and this is a conservative estimate). We have not approached the 76 percent graduation rate achieved in the late 1960s. Nor will we even approach the 100 percent rate goal set by NCLB for 2014. The target groups for NCLB, the traditionally underserved students of color, English language learners, low income students and students with disabilities, are the very groups that are at much greater risk of dropping out or being pushed out of school.

What should be our thinking; what can be done? Here is a short list:

  1. Scale back standardized testing, but do not eliminate this type of accountability.
  2. Put more emphasis on finding out what students are learning AS they are being taught. We must understand that one does not teach something until someone learns something. A score on a test does not equate to learning.
  3. Encourage teachers to create learning communities among themselves in schools so that they may share the ideas of the profession and solve their own classroom problems.
  4. The Secretary of Education must signal that social studies, science, the arts, physical education, literature and other subjects are still a vital part of the school curriculum.
  5. Find a good teacher and principal (yes, there are many out there), and thank them.
  6. Finally, be afraid. Let’s realize that education is not a sound-bite business of labeling students based on a test score. Those who really want to solve our schooling problems should look carefully at the nature of learning itself and be concerned that we are in danger of losing our flexibility and resourcefulness in education. Only then can we reclaim good education.

Appeared in The Jackson Sun, Aug. 6, 2006, as Over-testing Robs Education of Its Flexibility and Creativity)


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