New York is a hotbed of anti-testing activism, especially in affluent suburban districts, where parents who equate testing with excessive curriculum pressure have joined forces with teachers unions who see standardized tests as a tool that subjects them to unwanted accountability. Hillary Clinton has already distanced herself from the education-reform movement, which is a predictable course of action for a Democrat facing a contested primary. The looming New York primary has raised the pressure for her to placate the burgeoning “opt-out” movement, which encourages students to boycott standardized tests. Bill Clinton asserted last week that even one national test per year is too many. “The idea of having to give a national test every year for five years in a row for people from the third to the eighth grade doesn’t make as much sense as investing the same amount of money in helping the teachers to be better teachers.”
There are certainly reasons to believe some schools spend too much time on tests and that consolidation is in order. But this is an odd position for a liberal politician to take, for many reasons. The resource cost to implement a single annual national test is minuscule. And the use of data to measure the effectiveness of public policy is a foundation of progressive governance going back more than a century. Opting out of tests degrades their value as a data tool and makes it harder, or even impossible, for policymakers to measure what is working and what isn’t.
What’s more, testing is an important tool to measure racial and economic equality. A report this year by Ulrich Boser and Catherine Brown at the Center for American Progress found that states that use standards-based reform have produced better outcomes for low-income children. (My wife, Robin Chait, used to work as an education-policy analyst at CAP, and now works for a public charter school.) Not surprisingly, civil-rights organizations representing African-Americans and Latinos have argued to keep in place annual national testing.
Opponents of testing tend to dismiss the value of tests, insisting that they merely force teachers to “teach to the test.” And it is certainly true that tests need to be designed well in order to measure academic achievement. But there is also non-test evidence that supports the findings produced by tests. For instance, a Credo study found that urban students in public charter schools receive the equivalent of 40 extra days’ worth of learning per year, compared to students in neighborhood-based public schools. That study based its conclusion on test results. But a new study by Tim Sass, Ron Zimmer, Brian Gill, and Kevin Booker, tracking Florida students over time, compared students who attended charter schools to those who started in a charter and switched to a neighborhood school at the beginning of ninth grade. The authors carefully matched students by test scores and disciplinary incidents, to ensure they were studying equivalent groups. They found that the students who stayed in charters earned more money in their 20s than the students who enrolled in neighborhood schools. That is, they confirmed that the test outcomes in charters reflected transferable knowledge that helps students succeed after graduation, not just an intensified focus on test skills.
The Obama administration quietly implemented a sweeping education-reform agenda. The boldest step was Race to the Top, a $4 billion grant stuck into the stimulus at the outset of the administration, which sparked a nationwide wave of reform. But the administration, fearful of further alienating the teachers-union allies it needs to turn out at the polls, has barely uttered a peep in defense of its reform agenda. (The unions, fearful of alienating their pro-Obama members, have generally pretended that Obama’s agenda was masterminded by his Education secretary, Arne Duncan, whom they have attacked bitterly, without the president’s consent.) Over the course of Obama’s presidency, unions have grown increasingly militant in their opposition to any accountability measures at all. The pressure for Democrats to oppose reform now exceeds what Obama and Clinton faced in 2008.
Bill Clinton framed his wife’s position in remarkable terms: “She thinks [the tests] are just too much, that it’s national overreach,” he said, “and the most it could ever do is to help people at the very bottom levels of achievement.” Turn that last passage over in your head and consider its meaning: The most it could ever do is to help people at the very bottom levels of achievement. As if helping people at the bottom is so insignificant that it’s not worth doing. What a thing for a Democrat to say!