In a conversation about education reform recently, someone asked me about the focus on test scores and whether that resulted in entirely too much class time on “test prep”. I think it is a risk, to be sure, that “test prep” will consume instruction. But I think several trends mitigate this risk. For one thing, the best prep for a test is understanding the actual content – and that shouldn’t be limited to practice drills, etc – but incorporated organically into lessons, readings, or what not. Teachers I talk to tell me this is something they strive to do, and something that can be built into evaluations of teachers through in-class observations and student surveys. So a strong principal and school culture can mitigate against the test factory. The second trend is that the country should be getting better tests. Since most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, their tests will be realigned. Teachers support the Common Core because they recognize it emphasizes the higher order thinking their students need. The state consortia developing new tests aligned to the Common Core will recognize this too.
So, I believe we can de-emphasize basic “test taking” skills if we ensure there are other incentives not strictly linked to the test score and the tests themselves measure rigorous skills. But at the heart of original question is a kernel of doubt that I think many people harbor. Why do we even need a test? Is a test really a good measure of anything? Isn’t my student or child, school or district, more than a number? I certainly can respect this fear. I’ve had times in my life where I have gotten a test back and thought, this shouldn’t be the sole determination of my value. But yet, tests do tell us something. Even those supposedly rote multiple choice tests are pretty good predictors of actual important things in life.
This week’s Economist discusses two papers that examine the value of a good teacher in an unspecified, large urban district. “Value-add” analyses seek to determine the impact of a teacher on a student test scores . By controlling for other factors, researchers can do a pretty good job of isolating the impact of the teacher on a student’s learning as measured by the tests. The results show that good teachers do have a significant impact. But researchers can go further than that. They’ve found that students exposed to high value-add teachers are more likely to attend university and achieve higher earnings.
The authors reckon that swapping a teacher at the bottom of the value-added spectrum with one of average quality raises the collective lifetime income of each class they teach by $1.4m. That rise would apply across all the teacher’s classes and over the whole of his or her career.
They’ve even found that good teachers can even reduce teenage pregnancy and increase savings for retirement. And we all need to do that!
So testing helps us identify good teachers and good teachers are linked with very real and very positive outcomes for students. Do we need test scores? The answer is clearly yes.
The studies cited by The Economist were:
- “Measuring the impacts of teachers I: evaluating bias in teacher value-added estimates“, Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff, NBER working paper 19423, September 2013
- “Measuring the impacts of teachers II: teacher value-added and student outcomes in adulthood“, Raj Cheety, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff, NBER working paper 19424, September 2013.