Let's face it. Standardized testing in the United States has a bad name. There is far too much of it. The ubiquitous bubble-test versions poorly reflect student work. Corollary issues drive too many teachers to teach to the test and push schools to dedicate resources to test prep rather than a focus on a high-quality curriculum. It's unfair to attach high stakes to tests that occupy just a few hours of a student's school year — but we do, especially when it comes to college and other school admissions decisions, and to dispensing public high school diplomas and promotion in grade. Want a sure round of applause? Tell an audience of educators or parents that we over-test our children.
Regarding volume, the United States is the only developed nation that requires standardized tests of all public school students every year from grade three to eight, in reading and math. Most nations, including all of those whose students generally outperform U.S. students in international comparisons, administer tests at only a few key junctures in a school career — such as the beginning and end of secondary school. They also assess a broader and deeper curriculum, using tests that demand writing and other forms of work, not just the multiple-choice responses that have dominated U.S. assessments, mandatory and elective, over the past few decades.
Given all this — and this is just a sampling of the criticism — it's logical that independent school educators would choose to ignore most national standardized tests. But the curriculum landscape in the U.S. is changing for the better — and the testing landscape is changing with it, in both public and private schools. Turns out, there are reasons independent schools should pay attention.
By this point, we have all heard of the Common Core (or more accurately the Common Core State Standards). Adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia several years ago, the Common Core articulates a demanding progression of academic expectations for students from kindergarten through 12th grade in math and language arts. The standards were developed by balanced groups of experts and educators working under the bipartisan sponsorship of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Science standards are under development. Notwithstanding flurries of criticism — mostly alleging federal intrusion into traditional state and local territory — the standards have received widespread approval. They clearly promote higher-order thinking and problem solving and push schools to expose students to rich and diverse content, including the great literature of the world.
Since last spring, I've been visiting independent schools — 13 at this writing and twice that number by the time you read this essay. I also enjoyed time with independent school teachers and leaders at many NAIS Institutes during the past summer. In these encounters, I frequently ask about curricula. Our schools have such distinctive missions and cultures; how are curricula built to reinforce them? What I hear routinely is that schools are beginning to look to the Common Core. Why? The standards articulate expectations for deeper learning familiar to independent school educators while also offering academic continuity through all grade levels. The standards do not prescribe how they should be met. That is left to educators and their ingenuity. But they do offer an important lens through which independent schools can view and improve their curricula.
How the standards will be assessed, though, is a different matter. In states that adopt the new standards, public schools will administer new annual tests. Independent and other private schools are generally exempt from this requirement, though the details are still being worked through in a few states. Given the independence of private schools to pursue their own educational missions, it's possible that these new national assessments won't matter. But just as independent schools can electively benefit from the elements of the Common Core standards, they also could electively benefit from elements of whichever new assessment regime emerges from the Common Core.
It's a matter of adaptation, not adoption.
In the old days — from roughly 1990 to the present — every state wrote its own academic standards and its own mandatory tests. In 2002, the federal government, through the No Child Left Behind Act, required annual testing and evidence of academic progress — by all students — in schools receiving federal funds, meaning nearly everybody. But states retained control over standards and assessments. Some states used their authority to write rich and rigorous standards and to back them up with assessments that went beyond simple multiple choice —requiring students to produce work and to think creatively and analytically. Other states were less demanding and innovative.
It is now clear that states that raised the bar for both standards and assessments did right by their schools and students. Over the last decade, public school students in states with superior standards and assessments improved their math and reading achievement by more than one grade equivalent over states with lower standards and inferior assessments. The most improved states included both rich and poor: Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are all in the top 10. You can read more — and find which states are the laggards — in a report I recently authored with Constance Clark, The New State Achievement Gap, published by Education Sector. A forthcoming article by Clark shows that these same states also raised the achievement of African-American students enough to erase half of the historical racial achievement gap, which for decades has been stuck nationally at more than two grade equivalents.
Embodying the lessons of successful states and taking cues from the National Assessment of Education Progress, which employs standards matched by only the highest-performing states (and on which Clark's and my findings are based), the Common Core standards will soon be accompanied by new and better assessments. These new assessments are being developed by two consortia of states, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARRC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Both consortia have similar objectives. They want assessments that match the rigor of the Common Core standards. Many states today have high standards but assess them with tests based on poorly aligned, off-the-shelf, low-level test items. Both consortia want assessment tasks that require students to apply their knowledge and skills to novel problems, to think across subject areas, to interpret sophisticated nonfiction texts, and to write essays. Because states are free to adopt the assessments of either consortium, or neither, there is competition to get the assessments right.
There is also an important new player, the Council for Aid to Education. Founded by colleges in 1952 to conduct research on and generate support for higher education, this heretofore quiet advocate for the academy has made headlines recently as an academy critic. Working with some of the nation's most respected psychometricians, the council has developed a new assessment, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), to gauge how well colleges and universities help students improve their higher-order thinking skills. The assessment employs tasks that require students to solve novel problems, think across disciplines, and write. Hundreds of colleges and universities now administer the assessment to freshman and seniors.
The CLA is now available in a version for middle and high schools. Called the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA), its aims are similar to those of the new Common Core assessments. In fact, the Council for Aid to Education is under contract to PARRC to develop the performance tasks for the new Common Core assessments. The council's involvement makes it highly likely that new assessments will look significantly different from traditional state tests.
Independent schools are familiar with the work of these new test designers. Roughly 70 independent schools already administer the CWRA. Our educators have also been very active in examining alternatives to traditional norm-referenced standardized exams. We have schools looking at international benchmarking exams like the Programme for International School Assessment (PISA); others are looking at a new multidimensional reasoning and communication exam, Lectica's "DiscoTest" (for "discourse"), which is based in part on the dynamic skill theory of Kurt Fischer, the Charles Bigelow professor of education at Harvard University, and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program. Our schools, of course, also participate in Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate testing. The reason schools turn to these forms of standardized assessments is simple: Our schools do not want to leave the progress of their students to guesswork. They value standard measures, but the measures must match the high quality of a demanding school's curriculum.
Today's leading standardized assessments in public school education generally do not gauge college readiness. College admissions officers could care less how students perform on current state tests. (Think about that: public schools have to align their curricula to assessments that are irrelevant to student success after graduation.) The new Common Core assessments do not make that mistake. They aim to align with the mission of college preparation. Higher education experts have played a role in writing the new standards and are helping to evaluate the new assessments. Perhaps most important, the College Board has indicated its intention to rewrite the SAT to align with Common Core assessments. If that occurs — and it seems likely — schools will have available to them from the early grades through high school assessments that promote deeper thinking and cultivate the knowledge and skills necessary for admission to and success in college and the world of work.
As college preparatory institutions, independent schools obviously work hard to help students develop the academic expertise and the habits of mind that higher education requires. They also enable students to acquire the values and dispositions that will help them contribute to their communities and lead happy lives — attributes that may never submit to formal assessment. We can't measure with a scorecard everything great schools do. Until very recently, we did not have tools for measuring even the academic elements of great schools satisfactorily.
Standardized testing had earned its bad name. But a new generation of assessment tools is undeniably on the way. Independent schools — indeed, all schools with high expectations for students — should watch these developments closely. Much could still go awry. But assessment is headed in a proven direction: to support schools that aim high.
John Chubb is president of NAIS.