Rebecca Holcombe: Beyond testing

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rebecca Holcombe, who is the Vermont secretary of education.

Testing is once again in the news. NAEP test results were released across the nation; President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education have supported reductions in testing; and states have been releasing local assessment results. Yet the storyline remains the same: too much testing, not enough student achievement.

In Vermont, we think the story should be more about what we are doing with these test results, and a little less about the tests themselves.

Over the last decade or so, federal policy has used student achievement data to judge and sanction schools, teachers and principals. Furthermore, many states have defined teacher and educator quality narrowly in terms of test scores.

While we believe the intent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is laudable, and we agree that we must commit to ensuring every student has the best quality education we can provide, the blunt tools in NCLB threaten faith in public institutions and undermine our ability to serve our children well.

NCLB assumes that employees in our schools need motivation before they will provide for their students. Most of the “motivation” comes in the form of sanctions that, at best, introduce elements of fear and coercion to our educational system.

As a state, we have chosen to pursue a more measured, thoughtful and balanced approach to accountability that is focused on building the professional capabilities of our educators, so they in turn can take better care of our children.


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High-stakes testing also creates perverse incentives for teachers to teach in ways that are antithetical to our vision for equity. Most states are using these test scores to shape employment decisions, and as a result, encourage educators to teach narrowly to the test, so as to boost those scores as much as possible.

High stakes can also penalize good teachers who work with some of our most vulnerable students. If a teacher agrees to teach students whose performance is so far below grade level that their learning can never be captured on the grade level tests, their efforts, no matter how Herculean, will never be evident in test-based performance measures.

These NCLB accountability measures have led educators to question the test and its purposes, and to challenge what they see as unfair measures of their performance.

Unlike most states, Vermont has consistently chosen to not use scores to evaluate, hire and fire teachers. Our teachers express professional pride in improving student performance, but not fear that if they don’t inflate those scores by teaching in narrow, test-focused ways, that they might lose their jobs. However, the federal sanctions on our schools and districts remain, and we worry that this inappropriate use of tests is both eroding their utility as measures of progress and perhaps discouraging some of the learning and innovative thinking we most want to support.

As the student representative on the State Board of Education, Rainbow Chen, recently noted, every year we use the tests to tell students, especially English language learners and children growing up in the face of deep adversity, that they are “not proficient” or “not on track for college and careers.” Instead, we could be helping them mark how much progress they have made and encouraging them to strive higher.

Vermont still has educational dilemmas and challenges to resolve. We still have achievement gaps, particularly for students living in poverty. Our schools continue to search for solutions to support students as increasing opiate addiction afflicts some of our communities. We are struggling to figure out how to encourage some of our rural students to see postsecondary education as a step towards a stronger future for both themselves and their communities. We know that our ultimate job is not to prepare students for tests, but to prepare them for a future when humans do what computers can’t do well: creative, innovative work that demands self-direction and judgment.

What we have learned, however, is that we are more likely to solve this problem by working together, rather than looking to blame, sanction, or label one another. As a state, we have chosen to pursue a more measured, thoughtful and balanced approach to accountability that is focused on building the professional capabilities of our educators, so they in turn can take better care of our children. And, we need a more measured and supportive approach to student achievement that is focused on improving progress and accomplishment, rather than blaming and shaming.

Students and families deserve schools that serve them and their communities well. Our schools and educators deserve policies that respect their contributions and support them in getting better at the most important work in the world: preparing ALL our children to create a strong future for themselves, the state and the nation.


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