Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform

Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform

by Herbert J. Walberg

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The author draws on scientific studies of tests and their uses to show how standardized achievement tests must play a central role in improving achievement in K-12 schools. He explains the central considerations in developing and evaluating tests and tells how tests can best be best used, covering such topics as using tests for student incentives, paying teachers for…  See more details below


The author draws on scientific studies of tests and their uses to show how standardized achievement tests must play a central role in improving achievement in K-12 schools. He explains the central considerations in developing and evaluating tests and tells how tests can best be best used, covering such topics as using tests for student incentives, paying teachers for performance, and using tests in efforts to attain new state and national standards.

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Hoover Institution Press
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Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform

The Hoover Institution's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education

By Herbert J. Walberg

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1356-4



The pressing need to improve achievement in American schools is widely recognized. Factors associated with high achievement are appropriate testing, along with high standards, a curriculum closely adapted to the standards, and effective teaching. Because test design and use are technical matters, legislators, state and local school board members, and educators themselves are often poorly informed about their strengths, potentials, and limitations.

Despite good intentions, responsible officials often adopt misguided testing policies, and teachers have used tests that do not accomplish their intended purposes. For these reasons, the apparent results badly inform parents, citizens, and policy-makers about the actual achievement of students — a reason for American students' mediocre performance relative to those in other economically advanced countries and relative to the new demands of the information economy.

This book draws on scientific studies of tests and their use to inform users and consumers about well-established principles of testing, current problems involving their use, and evidence-based solutions. In addition, because valid tests cannot be developed without high and specific standards, one of the chapters discusses standards and how they should determine the plans and development of tests.

These topics are particularly important today. In the past several decades, costs of public schools have steadily and substantially risen, yet student achievement has remained stagnant. In response, schools, school districts, states, and the federal government are adapting a reform framework of "standards-assessment-accountability," with achievement tests playing a central role in assessing what students have learned.

To perform their role in the reform framework, tests must be technically adequate and well administered. They must be aligned with standards and reported accurately and fairly to the interested parties, including parents, educators, school boards, legislators, and citizens. These contributions are all the more important for highstakes decisions such as requiring failing students to repeat grades, closing or chartering repeatedly failing schools, and paying teachers for the achievement progress of their students, topics that are also discussed in this book.

Origins of Achievement Testing

The history of testing can be traced to the beginnings of tribal societies, when they were used to determine whether young people were ready to assume adult responsibilities. The kinds of achievement tests that are the focus of this book have a far shorter history. They evolved from attempts to use scientific methods to understand human intelligence. Those investigations began with psychological interests in differences in ability, emotions, and behavior among humans. In England, for example, Sir Francis Galton surveyed the abilities of British families that led to debates about whether differences in intelligence and human functioning are attributable to heredity or environment. Intelligence testing grew out of these early investigations notably in France and the U.S. around 1905, which led testing specialists to generate measures for evaluating human potential. During World War I, the United States' military used uniform tests and scoring for assigning personnel to jobs. By 1933, thousands of tests were in use for measuring intelligence, aptitude, and personality.

After 1950 the emphasis in school testing began shifting from personality and potential to academic accomplishment or achievement in mathematics, reading, science, and other subjects and skills. By establishing common metrics for comparing achievement of individuals from all social classes, educational backgrounds, and cultures, standardized tests could show objective evidence of student progress, readiness for college and graduate and professional schools, mastery of English and math, and employment skills.

College admission tests led the growth of standardized testing. The non-profit Educational Testing Service, for example, was founded in 1947 to meet the needs expressed by the American Council on Education, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the College Entrance Examination Board. These organizations were founded on the belief that admission policies would be more fair if students from a wide range of academic, geographical, and social backgrounds — not just descendents of alumni and Eastern Seaboard families who tended to be admitted to prestigious Ivy League schools — were given an opportunity to compete on objective, standardized tests.

Standardized tests continued to gain importance. Federal initiatives such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 encouraged schools to use standardized achievement tests earlier in a student's educational career to determine success in the usual school subjects. After 1970 objective examinations were used increasingly for occupational licensing and by firms to measure potential candidates' knowledge and skills. Increasingly, individuals who passed high-stakes examinations could earn diplomas, receive scholarships, and obtain licenses to practice in professional fields such as law and medicine. Failure restricted these opportunities, but the test results could offer individuals information on how they might correct their deficits.

Criticism of Standardized Tests

This book focuses on standardized achievement tests in which all those tested face the same tasks and conditions. High scores mean students have acquired the knowledge and skills they need to meet increasingly important standards and ready themselves for further learning in school. Most individuals take standardized tests several times during their lifetime. Necessary tasks like obtaining a driver's license require the successful completion of standardized tests, making them difficult to avoid; and tests are used routinely even in voluntary activities such as first-aid instruction.

Objections to Standardized Achievement Testing

Several influential education writers adamantly oppose current models of standardized testing and the growing emphasis on high standards and standards-based testing. Alfie Kohn, for example, urges educators to "make the fight against standardized tests our top priority until we have chased this monster from our schools." Similarly, Gerald Bracey holds that "high standards and high-stakes testing are infernal machines of social destruction."

Though more tempered, several political leaders have also expressed misguided criticism about standardized achievement tests and asked policy-makers and educators to avoid them. Before he became president, for example, Sen. Barack Obama urged "innovative assessments, including digital portfolios," and making "the goal of educational testing the same as medical testing — to diagnose a student's needs," leaving out educator and student accountability for learning. This book makes clear why critics of standardized testing are wrong and how their views, if acted on, would undermine learning. Similarly, state legislators have allowed lax standards and ill-conceived tests to measure the progress of schools, educators, and students.

Tests as Guides to Policy

For another reason, high standards, valid tests, and accountability are important for America's future. The United States has traditionally excelled in adult accomplishments in mathematics and science as well as their practical applications, but this status is now threatened. Although top American universities are second to none in the world, the National Science Board reported that the U.S. lead is shrinking.

Foreign students, moreover, comprise an increasingly larger percentage of students in American university graduate programs in these scientific and technical fields. They often return home with the best training American universities offer. Many American students are unable to show similar levels of achievement.

Countries in Asia and Europe, moreover, have increasingly improved primary and secondary education, which may be even more decisive in scientific and technical leadership. Long before the school achievement crisis was recognized, I pointed out that the United States' welfare and prosperity benefit more from a well-educated population than from a scientific elite making scientific discoveries. Why? Credible scientific discoveries are published in peer-reviewed journals easily accessible outside the country of origin. Undue efforts to discover scientific breakthroughs, moreover, can divert time and energy from making effective use of them in such fields as medicine and engineering. The United States, for example, leads the world in medical research but lags behind other countries in children's health and adult life expectancy.

The importance of high standards and attaining better test scores in schools is better recognized now than when I was writing in the early 1980s. During the past few decades, tests have been employed to measure how well K–12 students and schools have met proficiency standards. Tests and standards have become more effectively employed to advance student knowledge and skills. Analysis of K–12 standards and tests, however, reveals continuing problems.

Achievement tests today play a major role in K–12 education. They allow educators to assess the progress of students, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and plan remediation as well as revisions of teaching and curriculum. They allow parents to objectively monitor their children's learning and similarly intervene to help solve their learning problems. They enable education leaders to monitor and evaluate the progress of schools and individual teachers. Achievement tests also help citizens and legislators inform themselves about the efficiency of the large amounts of tax money spent on schools.

Surveys show that parents, citizens, and legislators strongly support tests and testing and want to see bigger consequences for excellence and failure. Educators — particularly professors in schools of education where teachers and administrators are trained — unfortunately lack testing expertise and often oppose their use. Until recently, educators prevailed. But the growing awareness that American public schools are failing to fulfill their responsibilities has changed the terms of the debate, and educators are increasingly being held accountable for disappointing achievement results.

The following chapters present much research supporting the positive and substantial effects of standardized tests. The first four chapters of this book explain the most important ideas about achievement tests and the steps in developing good tests. The reader is shown why tests are necessary, how to recognize well-made tests, and how tests are properly written. The next four chapters turn from tests to testing, that is, how tests can be best used. These include such topics as using tests to motivate students and teachers for better performance, how to prevent test fraud by students and teachers, and the role of tests in meeting state and national standards. In view of the continuing controversy over test design and instances of fraud, the final chapter argues that the development, administration, and scoring of tests and reporting of results should be conducted by organizations independent of traditional school authorities. A brief conclusion summarizes the key findings.



Well-constructed standardized tests can help us assess how well students achieve broad, commonly valued academic goals. By evaluating the test performance of groups of students at the same grade level or who have taken the same course, and comparing it with a representative range of students from that group, it is possible to determine how well schools are fostering academic achievement.

Standardized tests can measure the degree to which students attain proficiency standards for specific topics and grade levels set by state and national governments. Standardized tests also make it possible to compare students in one school system, city, state, or country to those in others systems and places, which can reveal insights on what kinds of educational practices work best and which workforce is best prepared to compete in the global economy.

By designing tests with common content, directions, and scoring procedures and administering these tests under the same conditions, standardized tests facilitate reliable and valid comparisons across various groups. They make it possible to measure trends in achievement over time, identify how well student performance aligns with educational goals or standards, and recognize gaps in who is learning and what is being learned. Increasingly, they are being used for "high-stakes" decisions such as closing repeatedly failing schools.

Physicians would be negligent in their treatment of malnourished children if they failed to regularly assess their patients' weight. Similarly, educators would be negligent if they failed to systematically assess student performance. Since American students are now tested more often, the national crisis of poor academic achievement is clearer than ever. This chapter summarizes the evidence of poor levels of achievement, what the public thinks about it, and the need for testing.

Reframing the Learning Problem

Many educators are slow to publicly acknowledge the poor achievement test results of their students and choose instead to criticize the reliability or relevance of the tests. They lobby policymakers to ignore poor test results each year when it is time to renew public funding for schools. But policy-makers ignore poor test results at their peril.

Test information can be constructively diagnostic if used to strengthen programs. The 1998 report "A Nation Still at Risk," for example, used standardized test results to document the lack of progress in improving national math and science achievement rates in the 15 years since A Nation at Risk was delivered in 1983 to the U.S. secretary of education. Both reports drew attention to the poor mathematics and science achievement of American students relative to students in other economically advanced countries. Substantially higher spending and many reforms adopted since the first national report failed to raise U.S. achievement to the levels of other economically advanced countries.

More recent data shows almost no improvement in K–12 achievement rates. A recent international achievement survey showed that among students in 30 countries, those in the U.S. ranked 25th in science — exceeding only Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Mexico. American students also do poorly on tests of their English language abilities. The 2008 report prepared by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example, estimated that only 24 percent of 12th-graders showed proficiency in English writing as indicated by correct spelling, proper grammar, and the skills needed to write an essay and explain complex information. Only 31 percent of 8th-graders showed proficient reading skills. Reading and other language skills, of course, are essential for further learning in all subjects and have important economic and social consequences.

Students who achieve poorly in elementary school tend to drop out of high school, and high dropout rates also confirm learning problems in the United States. After World War II, the percentages of students entering and graduating from high school in this country were the highest in the world. Today, other countries have made such rapid progress that the U.S. ranks poorly among economically advanced countries.

Between 1995 and 2005, for example, U.S. high-school completion rates dropped from 2nd to 21st place among 27 economically advanced countries, despite the U.S. having the highest per-student expenditure of all economically advanced nations. Only about 70 percent of American students graduate from high school on time, and about 1.2 million students drop out annually. Seventeen of the nation's 50 largest cities have dropout rates that are higher than 50 percent.

English, mathematics, and science skills strongly determine success in school, work, and life. Since students score so poorly in these subjects as measured on standardized achievement tests, it is understandable that parents, legislators, and citizens increasingly worry about students' and the nation's future. They are concerned about having an economy strong enough in the years ahead to pay the costs of their own Social Security and Medicare benefits — costs that Congress has obligated young people to pay.

Much evidence found in the United States and elsewhere shows how school achievement generates a wide range of benefits for individuals who score well on standardized tests. As noted by Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy, highly educated people excel in many aspects of life. "The education process itself leads people away from more harmful activities and toward better habits," including the rearing of their own children.


Excerpted from Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform by Herbert J. Walberg. Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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