The trouble with testing

I’ve had a long and shifting relationship with the idea of standardized testing in education. Before I joined Teach For America–which is also to say before I had much of an informed opinion about education in general–I had a knee-jerk liberal opposition to the idea. In my classroom, tests felt like an essential tool, the center of what drove my work.

As I moved towards my current role, I formed a more nuanced opinion. Tests still feel important to me, particularly in low-income, minority communities: without them, I fear that the problem of quality in our education system would go ignored. But we need to think carefully about what’s on the tests, and how we use them. Because the pursuit of test scores has warped math education into something else entirely.

This all explains the lens through which I read the New York Times‘s examination of a curious phenomenon: that in struggling schools, math test scores rise more quickly than English test scores. It’s a pattern I’ve seen here in Mississippi, too, in schools I admire.

So what’s going on?

Is math just easier to teach? That’s something I used to believe, and something I overheard new corps members saying this week. I hope by the end of induction, I talked them out of the idea. I’ve been in schools where math classes are really calculator classes: follow this sequence of buttons, and this thing will spit out the answer. That is easy to do, and it can and does raise test scores. But it’s not teaching: The ability to compute does not mean that students can solve mathematical problems.

In my mind, the reason that math test scores go up faster is because math tests, at least in their current incarnation, are just easier to game. Which is why, unlike some op-ed writers for the Times, I’m excited for Common Core. As we see more of the tests, it becomes clear that we’ll soon be testing students ability not just plug through formulas, but their ability to think–deeply, creatively, and mathematically. It’s scary, and test scores will go down. But it makes the system harder to game, and takes out an incentive for schools not to teach.

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