Why do we test students?
Many educators would say tests help us check up on teachers and schools. After all, federal policy has required annual testing in grades 3-8 in math and reading since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Test results are published widely, informing accountability systems at the state and local levels. In some places, they play a role in the assessment of teacher performance. In recent years, resistance to testing has focused on these functions and their seeming irrelevancy to teachers and parents.
Transparency and accountability have important roles, to be sure. They focus attention on the substandard education being provided to millions of American students from less privileged backgrounds and have helped illuminate inequities in our education systems. But are these goals the best reason to test students?
New research suggests there’s a better one. Along with Dan Goldhaber and Malcolm Wolff from the Center for Longitudinal Data Analysis in Education Research (CALDER), I recently co-authored a working paper examining data for millions of students in Washington, North Carolina and Massachusetts. We found that test results can be useful not only in understanding how a student is doing in the present, but also in predicting how they will do much further in the future. An individual student’s results on state tests, as early as third grade, are predictive of long-term educational outcomes such as high school graduation and advanced course-taking.
The fact that elementary test scores can predict which students will thrive many years later is discouraging in many ways. It suggests that students who start out successful remain successful… and that peers who struggle are unlikely to recover. Our efforts to change trajectories for students through better instruction and supports are too often failing.
What can be done to change this pattern?
Today, my co-authors and I are publishing a policy brief recommending that state education agencies (SEAs) take the lead in making test data more useful and meaningful for families. SEAs can analyze recent test scores, from Spring 2019 and earlier, to forecast the likelihood of students achieving key educational outcomes and share those projections with parents and educators, if parents wish to review them. The cancellation of Spring 2020 state test data is not an insurmountable barrier, as our analysis shows that the group of students requiring additional support tends to remain consistent over time.
This is a different purpose for testing: One that focuses on helping families and educators keep kids on track. Rather than aggregating scores across classrooms, schools, districts, or states, the focus would be on individual students and families. Rather than informing the public or policy leaders, the purpose would be empowering parents to be engaged on behalf of their children. In this case, test results could help families understand the path students are currently on at a time when they and their schools can still do something about it.
Our objective in sharing student projections with parents and educators should be collaborative conversations, not alarm. No student’s future is written in stone based on test scores. However, we find compelling evidence that today, this is too frequently the case.