We're educating our kids all wrong: The progressive argument against standardized-test mania

Backlash against overtesting, "accountability" and Common Core is right on. Here's how we empower teachers and kids

Published March 28, 2015 2:45PM (EDT)

 (AP/Patrick Semansky)
(AP/Patrick Semansky)

Excerpted from "Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America's Schools"

Failing grades for the accountability movement

I’ve been delighted to watch a popular backlash building against an educational “accountability” movement that has robbed students of opportunities for meaningful and lasting learning—not to mention a decent lunch hour. In 2013, teachers at six Seattle high schools refused to administer a new standardized test they said was useless. Students in sixteen states boycotted standardized tests based on the new Common Core curriculum.

And the New York State United Teachers’ union demanded a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing. In the midst of all this, a movement calling itself the Badass Teachers Association (BAT) and claiming 20,000 members announced its support for “every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests, and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.” Whipping up the anti-test fervor even more over the past four years have been thousands of screenings, at schools throughout the nation, of the 2009 documentary "Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture," which features stories of hard-driven students with stress-related illnesses—including that of a perfectionist thirteen-year-old girl who committed suicide.

The New York Times has denounced America’s “testing mania.” From the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law in 2001 through the Obama administration’s 2009 Race to the Top initiative, federal, state, and local officials have demanded that schools demonstrate success with results on standardized tests. But many educators protest that today’s tests are so poorly designed and developmentally inappropriate that they are making students fear and hate going to school.

In late 2013, Carol Burris, an award-winning New York City high school principal, wrote a scathing review of a test for first-graders, focusing on a question that offered four choices to a problem asking, “Which is a related subtraction sentence?”

Burris noted that her nephew’s wife, who teaches calculus, was stumped by the wording. On her blog, she posted a copy of the test, which had been given to her by a distraught mother. The woman’s son, after dutifully answering the first several questions, had collapsed toward the end into writing big awkward “X’s” through the problems, clearly giving up hope of answering them correctly.

Now, we progressive educators have no objections to accountability, per se. Scientists have shown that the occasional test can help students learn. It’s also clear to us that some teachers, schools, and even states truly ought to be held to higher standards.

Yet we’re convinced that our national testing mania is doing more harm than good. We’re also dismayed by increasing evidence that the nationwide increase in standardized tests has done the most harm to minority and low-income students, widening the income equality gap. And we question some of the motives driving the trend.

In recent years, educational testing has become a multibillion-dollar industry, driven by big international corporations such as Pearson and Educational Testing Services. Simultaneously, both the number and frequency of standardized tests have been ratcheting up, as many school districts have been adding their own tests to prepare students for the federally mandated ones.

Today’s college-bound students find themselves undergoing a continuous stream of these high-pressure tests, including not only the mandated exams to track schools’ progress but SSATs (for private school applicants), PSATs, SATs, ACTs, and four-hour-long Advanced Placement tests, on top of the usual bevy of spot quizzes, mid-terms, and finals.

New laws in many states have tied teachers’ salaries and even jobs to students’ scores. As a result, what used to be a thoughtful, creative profession has become more like working in a factory. Educators are told: Here is the text. This is what we want you to teach; this is how long you can spend teaching it; and this is how we’ll judge your performance. For students, the changes are making many of today’s classrooms seem ever more like the harsh, boring schoolrooms of the early twentieth century.

In my more than a hundred hours of conversations with progressive teachers and principals over the past year, I’ve heard a rise in anxiety that many of us now share with our colleagues in conventional schools.

The worries are worst for teachers in progressive public schools, which in most cases must abide by district policy. In early 2014, Chris Collaros, principal of the Wickliffe Elementary School, said new Ohio State laws ranking teachers according to test results were not only making it harder for the school to retain its progressive identity but undermining teachers’ effectiveness.

“I have to put teachers in a box, based on a rubric with ten different elements of teaching,” he said. “That shuts down a lot of good conversation and makes progressive innovating a lot harder to do. It’s a one-size-fits-all model.”

As director of the independent K–6 Children’s Community School in Van Nuys, California, Neal Wrightson is relatively immune from such pressures, but worries that for children in mainstream schools, the value system being taught is “I’m good at this. Too bad for you,” rather than “I’m good at this. Let me help you.”

The test-driven return to rote learning may be hurting our economy as well as our society, by squelching signs of idiosyncratic creativity and leadership, the very qualities we need to keep our GNP growing. Instead, most current assessments track only the most low-level, easily measured thinking.

To be sure, even Park Day School hasn’t been entirely exempt from some forms of rote learning. I’ll give you a small example, a pet peeve of mine. I have yet to find a ten-year-old who can truly understand, much less explain, the concept of dividing fractions. Even adults often have a hard time with this level of abstraction. Nonetheless, a typical problem on a fifth-grade math test, and, of course, many of the standardized tests, is: “How many two-thirds are there in seven-ninths?” To answer this problem, fifth-graders have traditionally learned a simple trick: invert and multiply. This means they can mindlessly “solve” the problem when they see it—but is this really how we create future scientists and engineers?

Still, we teach this trick at Park Day, and have done so for years, because not to do so would be to leave our students unprepared in high school or beyond, when they eventually will have to take a standardized test.

Skeptical as we are about the worth of standardized assessments, it bears noting that U.S. students’ scores on the international PISA exams haven’t appreciably improved over the past decade. More significantly, all this testing doesn’t appear to be helping prepare kids for college. A 2012 study showed Americans complete college at lower than average rates among countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). With nearly half of U.S. college students dropping out before they get a degree, we rank behind Japan and Finland, as well as Hungary, Chile, and Italy. The skyrocketing expense of going to college is surely a factor for the dropouts—the cost has nearly sextupled since 1985—but so, say many experts, are abysmal levels of student preparedness.

All this said, for many teachers and parents alike, not to mention school district officials, the concreteness of the standardized test scores and GPAs are hard to resist. Such metrics, after all, are much easier to track than descriptors of children’s mental health. Indeed, throughout the country, newspapers publish schools’ test results, which realtors use to attract buyers into supposedly high-achieving neighborhoods.

This makes it all the more meaningful when prominent parents stand up to the mania, which is why I’m intrigued to hear some buzz at the PEN Conference concerning the Oscar-winning film star Matt Damon. In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian just a few days before our conference opened, Damon said that after a “giant family discussion” he had decided to enroll his four children in a progressive private school in Los Angeles. He would rather have sent them to public school, he said, but the kind of progressive education he himself had enjoyed as a public school student “no longer exists in the public system.”

In a follow-up piece in Time magazine, Los Angeles School District superintendent John Deasy contended that there were indeed progressive options in his district, and that he would be happy to help Damon find one. Still, Deasy and Damon weren’t all that far apart. In a subsequent interview for this book, Deasy acknowledged that American schools are suffering from a short-age of “thoughtful, rigorous assessments” combined with “far too many discrete high-stakes tests—and they are not serving students.”

Happily, some progressive public schools are managing to buck the system, or at least parts of it. The Winnetka School District doesn’t give any letter grades until seventh grade, substituting narrative reports. At Mission Hill School in Boston, Ayla Gavins has gone further, firmly resisting almost all of the battery of district-mandated standardized assessments, even though she fears it has alienated school district officials.

Gavins is obliged to allow at least one standardized state test a year in order for her school to receive government funding under the No Child Left Behind law. But she told me she has held the line against other district-mandated tests, designed to help students do better on the federally mandated ones:

The materials are sent to my school and sit there, and then I get a phone call that says, we have not gotten your testing results; the window is going to close, and I say, thanks very much, but it’s not coming. Then I get a phone call from someone higher up saying this testing is mandated, and I say, yes, I got that, and I’m also trying to speak with the superintendent on this issue, thank you very much. I’m not silently boycotting; I’ve been forward and open about that this just isn’t happening. I’m pushing back because I don’t think it benefits our students, don’t think it offers information better than what teachers are getting in real time, and don’t think it’s a good use of anyone’s time.

Gavins’s unusual national prestige—linked to her school’s extraordinary success—may have helped spare her from sanctions for this rebellion. Her school, a model of the best of progressive traditions, has been the star of a documentary film, "A Year at Mission Hill," and the subject of a book, "Democratic Education in Practice: Inside the Mission Hill School," by Matthew Knoester, an assistant professor of education at the University of Evansville. Knoester points out the school’s accomplishments, including the fact that more than 96 percent of the graduates surveyed have gone on to college. Moreover, localfamilies are flocking to Mission Hill; each year, Gavins must turn away about two thirds of the children who apply because she refuses to compromise on the policy of small student-teacher ratios. All this could explain why, instead of being disciplined for her conscientious objecting, Gavins has been invited to join district-level committees investigating ways to allow schools more self-determination.

As parents, teachers, and brave public school principals were standing up to the standardized tests in 2013, even Arne Duncan acknowledged they had some justification. At a May 2013 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, the education secretary said that much of the criticism of the tests was merited, and that the tests had some serious flaws. He went on to argue that the solution to mediocre tests isn’t to abandon assessment but to support better assessment.

I was happy to hear that.

Because better forms of assessment already exist. We practice them at progressive schools every day.

SOS for test-stressed kids

Let’s be frank: “accountability” and assessments are touchy subjects for many progressive educators, for good reason. Even some of our friendliest critics sometimes confuse our strategy of considering children’s emotional welfare in deciding how and what we teach as a lack of “rigor.” (The popular progressive educator Alfie Kohn aptly responds that the alternative is more like “rigor mortis.”) Or they judge the whole movement on the basis of the few schools that haven’t held true to Progressive Education’s traditional standards, which in point of fact are plenty rigorous.

Take Harvard’s Tony Wagner, one of today’s most-quoted education gurus. Wagner is a pioneer of the “21st Century Learning” movement, which he acknowledged, in an interview for this book, has strong roots in Progressive Education. “The ideas of learning by doing, of more emphasis on skills as opposed to content, of more hands-on tasks, and of a focus on student motivation—that’s all in the best of progressive tradition,” he said. Yet he went on to argue that the main difference between Progressive Education and 21st Century Learning lies in what he described as a general resistance to being held to standard measures of accountability. “This has always been the movement’s Achilles’ Heel,” he said.

The truth, as always, is more complicated. Our best progressive schools unquestionably hold students accountable. The difference is that we evaluate learning progress with more nuanced, thorough, and telling techniques than having children fill in bubbles on a form. These include mastering standards that let kids keep trying until they get it right, and an emphasis on continual self-assessment.

My colleague and friend Scott Duyan, head of school at the private, pre-K–8 Presidio Hill School in San Francisco, the oldest continuously operating progressive school west of the Mississippi, compares this to a chef tasting his soup before serving it to customers. It relays the message that students must assume responsibility for their own learning, strengthening a skill that could—and should—last a lifetime.

In 2004, Duyan and I went to bat for our beliefs, successfully challenging the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) requirement that its members administer a standardized test with the ungainly title of ERB CTP 4. (Independent schools are free to opt out of federally mandated tests, but many administer the Comprehensive Testing Program, administered by the global, non-profit Educational Records Bureau, to guarantee standardized achievement.) Up until then, our two schools’ determined rejection of such tests had deprived us of accreditation essential to our ability to network with other independent schools. Our first attempt to change the rule failed, but we strengthened our case with a binder full of research about why standardized tests aren’t adequate measurements of learning, and why our alternatives work better. Over the next five years, other educators joined us, until finally the CAIS ruled in our favor, noting what it called a growing sentiment that mandating standardized assessments “had the unintended consequence of having schools focus more upon administering the test, rather than upon developing assessment philosophies, tools, and practices.”

Our thoughts, precisely.

Over the past century, progressive schools have put a lot of effort and attention into developing effective alternative forms of assessment. Instead of the one-size-fits-all standardized exam or the Friday morning spot quiz, we have always favored the sorts of evaluations supported by research and described in the landmark National Research Council report "How People Learn," as those that “provide students with opportunities to revise and improve their thinking, help students see their own progress over the course of weeks or months, and help teachers identify problems that need to be remedied.”

Our leading alternatives include student presentations and portfolios; teachers’ thoughtfully individualized accounts of students’ academic and social development; and student-led conferences with teachers and parents that help students think more deeply about how they are progressing.

Excerpted from "Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America's Schools" by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright © 2015 by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Tom Little

Tom Little served as head of Oakland, California's Park Day School for twenty-seven years. A national leader in Progressive Education, he cofounded the Progressive Education Network. He died in 2013 from cancer shortly after writing "Loving Learning."

MORE FROM Tom Little

By Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent and the author of seven books, including "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes You Smarter" and "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention." She lives in northern California.

MORE FROM Katherine Ellison