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Educational Testing Policy
Stuck Between Two Political Parties
Richard P. Phelps
Posted: 2/21/05The U.S. public has consistently favored the use of
standardized testing in the schools, preferably with consequences (or "stakes")
riding on the results, since first polled on the topic several decades ago.
Depending on how the question is framed, those in favor of high-stakes
standardized testing outnumber those opposed from two-to-one to twelve-to-one.
Parents are stronger supporters of high-stakes testing than non-parents, and
that support does not budge when offered the possibility of their own progeny
Results from different polls approaching the topic in different
ways suggest that most Americans would like to see high-stakes tests
administered at least once every grade level. The typical U.S. school district,
however, offers just one or two high-stakes standardized tests in twelve years
of elementary and secondary school. Few public programs attract such a high
level of support. Likewise, few public programs are afforded less serious
consideration in policy discussions.
Mind you, I am not suggesting that
policy makers ignore the issue completely, nor that testing receives no
political support. Quite obviously, large-scale testing programs do exist in the
United States, many politicians profess support for them, and policy discussions
With only a few exceptions, however, U.S. educational
testing programs fall far short of what the U.S. public wants, and far short of
what most industrialized countries have. And, unless the politics of the issue
changes dramatically, in some manner I cannot foresee, it is likely to remain
Comprehensive Testing Systems are Multi-leveled and
A comprehensive testing system is one that captures all
the benefits standardized testing offers, and does it for all students, not just
some. Large-scale, high-stakes educational tests offer three benefits:
1. Information that can be used for diagnosis (e.g., of individual
students or teachers, of schools, of school programs);
from alignment, when the tests are matched to curricular standards and teachers
teach to those standards (and, yes, teach "to the test," as they are supposed to
do with standards-based tests); and
3. Motivation to study and to attain
The best testing regimes, such as one finds in many European and
Asian countries, tap all three sources of benefits through multi-level and
multi-target systems. "Multi-level" means that high-stakes tests are
administered at more than just one educational level. Typically in European and
Asian systems, students face high-stakes tests at the beginning and/or end of
more than one educational level (e.g., at the end of primary school, the
beginning and/or end of lower secondary school, the beginning and/or end of
upper secondary school, and the beginning and/or end of postsecondary
"Multi-target" means that every student, no matter where they
are in the range of achievement or in their choice of curriculum, faces a
high-stakes test that, ideally, offers a challenging, but attainable, goal. In
some systems, tests are set at multiple levels of difficulty, and offer multiple
levels of certification (e.g., a "regular" diploma and an "honors" diploma). In
other systems, different tests cover different subject matter (e.g., general,
vocational, or academic; literature, math & science, technology, or social
In the United States, high-stakes tests are uncommon at any but
the upper secondary level. Moreover, with very few exceptions, they are
single-target tests-each and every student, no matter what their level of
achievement or ability, course selection, or curricular preference, must meet
only one common standard of performance.
Ironically, largely socialist
Europe, with its relatively small socioeconomic and academic achievement
disparity, acknowledges that children are different and offers them a range of
academic options and multiple achievement targets. In the more libertarian
United States, with its relatively large socioeconomic and academic achievement
disparity, pressure is brought to bear for all children to take the same
curriculum (i.e., what is often called the "college track") and a single
academic achievement target is set for all.
When only one academic
achievement target is offered, by necessity it must be a low target. If it is
not, huge numbers of students can fail and the educational system can collapse
on itself. When the single target is low, responsive school systems focus effort
and resources toward bringing the lowest-achieving students up to that target.
Unfortunately, they also may neglect the average- and higher-achieving students
or, in the most perverse cases, deliberately hold them back.
No Child Left Behind Act
The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act set
in place what is largely a testing program. NCLB, however, falls far short of a
comprehensive multi-level, multi-target high-stakes testing system. State NCLB
testing systems typically set only one target (for schools), no stakes for
students (so little motivation to take the test seriously), and curricular
alignment can be less than perfect. Yet, as little as it may be, NCLB is
commonly characterized by educators and journalists as either being too much or
else marking the limit of what our schools can bear.
NCLB is modeled
after a Texas testing program supported in the 1990s by then-Governor George W.
Bush. The general outline of the program had been initiated in the 1980s by one
Democratic Texas governor and then developed during the administration of
another. But presidential candidate Bush championed the program as his own, and
so did his critics.
During the presidential campaign of 2000, a deluge
of negative press coverage swamped the media. I conducted a tally from spring
2000 into the fall. Articles on standardized testing, most of them about Texas,
ran at an average rate of about six a day. Most of them were uniformly negative
about tests. In addition, half a dozen anti-testing books were released during
the year, with their authors interviewed frequently in the media.
of professional education groups, such as the American Association of School
Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Association for
Curriculum Supervision and Development, vehemently denounced standardized
testing programs in general and candidate Bush's proposal in particular. Surf
the web sites of these groups even today and one will find an unadulterated diet
of one-sided anti-testing research, information, and sloganeering. Such groups
form the Democratic Party base on education issues.
I relished the prospect of standardized testing being a key issue
in a presidential campaign. In normal times, public debate on the issue is
dominated by testing opponents. The year 2000 held promise for a wider, more
balanced discussion. To encourage it, I conducted some research myself, the
results of which contradicted the most prominent accusations. I sent the work to
journalists and to any Republican group I could find, assuming that they would
want to defend their standard-bearer. I informed both groups of the
aforementioned negative press deluge and encouraged efforts to tell the other
side of the story.
Hundreds of letters, phone calls, and email messages
later, I was stunned. Hardly any of them cared. Education journalists seemed
quite content to tell just one side of the story. Most of the Republican groups
showed no interest in the issue and the few that were interested were strongly
opposed to standardized testing as a big government intrusion into local and
family affairs. Not until half a year after George W. Bush was elected president
did any of the Republican groups put any substantial effort into standardized
testing advocacy. The base of each of the two major political parties seemed to
dislike educational testing just as much as the overwhelming majority of the
U.S. public liked it.
Republicans Do Not Necessarily Represent
the Other Side
Yet, one finds only representatives of the two party bases
in most media coverage of the topic. Many journalists assume that the
Republicans must represent "the other side" of the testing issue and dozens of
them call one of just a handful of Republican policy brokers for quotes or
references to good sources. That most education journalists call the same few
people every time for their stories suggests how uniform pack education
journalism can be. That most education journalists assume the other side of a
story is represented best by professional politicos demonstrates what little
credence they give to education research as an objective, scientific
Republican education policy development is run, more or less,
like the petty fiefdom of overly acquisitive local labor bosses-all functions
being staffed by the personal favorites of just two or three individuals. Look
at the education policy work conducted either by Republican think tanks or
promoted by Republican-oriented education advocacy groups and odds are it was
produced by: (1) a certain former Assistant Secretary of Education-now a
foundation director-or one of his dozens of former staffers; (2) a certain Ivy
League Political Science professor or one of his former students or staffers; or
(3) one from a group of a dozen or so sympathetic academic economists.
To counter the vast, experienced, and broadly-knowledgeable armada of
talent advising education's vested interests and allied with the Democratic
Party, the Republicans launch a bathtub boat flotilla, manned by a small inbred
crew. The Republican thinkers do read and acknowledge each other's work, and,
more broadly, some of the little work done on the topic by economists. But they
declare nonexistent an enormous research literature accumulated by education
planners and practitioners, program evaluators, and psychologists. Given that
educational testing was invented by psychologists, that all tests are developed
by psychometricians, that tests are administered by educational practitioners,
and that testing programs are evaluated by program evaluators, the Republicans'
focus seems a wee bit narrow. Most GOP groups dutifully disseminate the work
emanating from this little group and, just as dutifully, ignore the vast
majority of education research and information.
By the way, you can
forget about finding pro-testing advocates among the fringe political parties.
Ralph Nader is responsible for founding the most extreme anti-testing group in
the United States. Libertarians generally oppose enforced standards and
large-scale testing as big government intrusion.
That many politicians
support education standards and standardized testing, despite discouragement
from their core supporters and close to universal disapproval from journalists,
should be considered refreshing to any democrat. Our elected officials are often
accused of pandering to the media and to their core supporters while they ignore
the wishes of their constituents. Perhaps that is often the case, but it is not
on this issue.
The intent of politicians to respond to the public mandate
supporting educational testing may be honorable and their actions to implement
testing programs in the face of often vitriolic opposition should be considered
heroic. But politicians are not psychometricians, as the on-again, off-again
pattern and perpetually stunted form of testing programs in the United States
Educational Testing: An Orphaned Policy
they are rarely heard from in policy debates, many of the world's foremost
testing experts work in North America. Ironically, they live in what could be
considered an educational testing backwater.
There must be thousands of
education researchers in the United States who feel as frustrated as I do. Not
only is the vast majority of quality research and information on educational
testing ignored by journalists and the small group of celebrity researchers they
talk to, extraordinarily often it is declared nonexistent. As a result, the
American public and the American politician are persistently misinformed, and
their desires reliably unrepresented in policy discussions.
What is a
political centrist and proponent of a hugely popular public policy to do?
Arguably, our country has not seen a viable centrist third party since 1912. But
perhaps therein lies the only hope for a political group that will champion the
sensible educational testing policy favored by the overwhelming majority of
Americans and adopted by most of the planet's industrialized countries. "Nothing
can stop a Bull Moose!" Nothing, that is, except a two-party
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