More and Better Testing: The Future of Measuring Student Success?

Jan 03, 2011

Standardized testing is a deeply contentious issue throughout American education, including in New York City schools. With the recent hire of a self-described test advocate as Chief Academic Officer, the largest public school system in the U.S. appears to be moving toward an assessment model with additional (and more rigorous) testing measures.

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An Ongoing Debate

Since the 2001 inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation - which places emphasis on helping students reach measurable learning outcomes - the role of testing in schools has increased significantly. NCLB demands that schools receiving federal funding be able to show that students are achieving educational objectives and standardized testing is the most common assessment method for doing this.

Bring up standardized tests among a group of educators, however, and you are likely to get a variety of reactions. Some view these tests as essential for determining whether schools are doing a good job of educating students. Proponents believe that without accountability measures in place, there is no way to truly determine whether students are making sufficient progress in the classroom.

Critics cite problems with standardized testing, worrying that results are often used to punish schools, thereby creating a situation in which educators and students are negatively affected emotionally. Opponents also observe that testing practices are inherently flawed, with evident biases against children with disabilities, language differences, cultural dissimilarities and other characteristics.

Some educators believe standardized tests are simply an inadequate measure to gauge student learning. Opponents of testing, for example, believe that the multiple choice format that most standardized tests take doesn't allow for the evaluation of critical thinking, creativity, problem solving or other markers of true learning.

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Moving Ahead with Testing

Despite objections on the part of some, the role of standardized testing in education is not likely to be minimized anytime soon. NCLB remains the law of the land and many school administrators continue to view test outcomes as a means by which to evaluate the quality of teachers' instruction.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the recent hire for Chief Academic Officer of New York City Public Schools, can be counted among those who believe in the efficacy of testing. However, teachers, who are often mistrustful of test-happy administrators, may be somewhat comforted by Polakow-Suransky's background. A 16-year veteran of the nation's largest school system, the administrator's beginnings were in the classroom as a history and math teacher.

The incoming Chief Academic Officer has in the past shown a progressive attitude toward school reform, despite his strong support of standardized tests. In his upcoming role, he plans to introduce 'more and better testing' that goes beyond test-taking strategies to evaluate students' mastery of true academic skills.

As Polakow-Suransky expressed in a recent interview with The New York Times: 'Until we start seeing assessments that ask kids to write research papers, ask them to solve unfamiliar problems, ask them to defend their ideas, ask them to engage with both fiction and nonfiction texts; until those kinds of assessments are our state assessments, all we're measuring are basic skills.'

While some New York City teachers may have difficulty getting behind the idea of more testing in schools, they will perhaps at least be on board with the idea of evaluating authentic learning. No doubt educators across the country will be watching as Polakow-Suransky implements changes; often practices adopted by the country's largest school districts affect how things are ultimately done in classrooms throughout the country.

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