Friday, August 5, 2011

Do away with "test-and-punish" for real opportunity to learn

By Monty Neill, Ed.D.
Executive Director, FairTest

With the teaching profession and public schools under attack as never before, teachers, parents and others rallied in Washington, D.C., at the end of July to “Save Our Schools.” The two most prominent themes at the SOS event were:

  1. The nation’s failure to address poverty or to provide every child with a strong opportunity to thrive and learn, and
  2. The overuse and misuse of standardized tests imposed by No Child Left Behind and made worse by the actions of many states and districts. 

Teachers, students, parents and many others recognize that testing mania has gone way too far. It undermines the limited educational opportunity low-income youth do have.

Under NCLB, the rate of improvement on National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math scores has slowed or stagnated compared with the prior decade. This is true in both reading and math. It affects low-income and minority group students, English language learners and students with disabilities. (See here for a detailed report on this:

Meanwhile, the graduation rate barely reaches 50 percent in many cities. Harsh disciplinary policies combine with the boring drudgery of schooling-reduced-to-test-prep to drive many youth out of school. Far too many end up in the criminal justice systems. (For the links between testing, discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline, see 

Lack of funding and unwise testing policies combine to narrow the curriculum. Children lose access to subjects that engage them, missing out on knowledge and skills they will need as adults. Reducing instruction to test prep in reading and math, as is happening in many schools, compounds the problem. Children of color and low-income youth lose the most, in part because their families can’t afford to make up for what they don’t get in school (see 

The U.S. must shift the “education reform” paradigm from test-and-punish to helping schools improve. The Forum on Educational Accountability, which I chair, has proposed ways to do that (see The recommendations include:

  • reduce the amounts and consequences of testing, while supporting high-quality assessment;
  • ensure strong professional growth for teachers;
  • fully fund the federal Title I and IDEA Part B programs (respectively, funds for low income youth and students with disabilities); and
  • provide high-quality early childhood education.

Other alliances and groups recommend similar changes. FairTest, for example, explains how to overhaul assessment and evaluation (see 

Unfortunately, the test-and-punish ideology of leading elements in both political parties, backed by some large foundations and major corporations, will be tough to dislodge – but dislodge it we must. That was the purpose of the SOS rally. One event in D.C. is only a step on our way, not the end. Winning the change requires educating, organizing and mobilizing the vast numbers of people who know we cannot defund or test our way to educational improvement. That work is our main task.

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