Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—Emphasis on Scores Comes at a Price

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Emphasis on Scores Comes at a Price

By  Richard Rothstein

There is a national consensus that students need more competency in reading, math, science and history. But Americans also want schools to teach citizenship, healthful lifestyles and creativity. When people rely mostly on test scores to assess school quality, do they unwittingly sacrifice these other goals?

When schools are accountable only for higher scores, teachers inevitably emphasize more easily testable skills. Less easily tested ones get shorter shrift. For example, it is simpler to test vocabulary than creative writing, so test-driven curriculums may dilute literacy, not enhance it.

Just as important, tests do not assess important nonacademic competencies.  The public once trusted teachers and administrators to find a good balance between math, reading, arts, health and other activities. They may not always have gotten it right, but today’s data-driven accountability systems may not achieve a good balance either. If basic skills were undervalued before, they are probably overemphasized now.

Curriculum planning requires weighing alternatives. Teachers must decide whether to devote time to mock elections that develop citizenship habits, or to arithmetic and vocabulary practice. Teachers evaluated only by student test scores are less likely to schedule the elections.

Schools increasingly confront such dilemmas. Consider the Academy of Communications and Technology in Chicago, with mostly poor and minority students. It may be closed if scores do not improve, so it now requires extra drills in basics. To find time, teachers eliminated student discussions and debates of social issues.

Boston’s Charlestown High also enrolls disadvantaged youth. It has doubled math and English requirements for half its ninth graders because they cannot graduate without passing state exams. To schedule this extra drill, students must drop an elective, like fine arts or gym.

And in the affluent Washington suburb of Waterford, an elementary school has cut back music assemblies and dropped plans for environmental studies because these cannot increase passing rates on Virginia’s statewide exams.

Certainly, the current math and science focus is working. More high schoolers now study precalculus, biology, chemistry and physics. Test scores are rising. But more teenagers have fatty diets; physical education enrollment has plummeted. Meanwhile, adolescent obesity has soared. Neither children nor our economy will prosper if graduates have higher scores, but are overweight, with poor exercise habits or irresponsible sexual behavior. Should Charlestown High do less algebra, and increase health education instead?

Employers today seek workers with problem-solving skills. But pressure to raise scores tells schools to de-emphasize cooperative, project-based learning because teamwork is not measured on standardized exams.

People want schools to teach conflict resolution by negotiation, not violence. But there is no standardized test for tolerance. If schools do not promote fourth graders who read poorly, shouldn’t they also retain them for not getting along with playmates?  If so, how could this trait be measured?

It is curious that while Americans hold schools increasingly accountable only for test scores, they also insist that schools do more. A recent Gallup poll found that 46 percent of the public wanted schools’ main emphasis to be training students to “take responsibility.” Only 39 percent say it should be academics. The rest think teaching cooperation should have priority.

In 1994, Congress set national education goals — being “first” in math and science was one, but others included preparing youth for responsible citizenship (with opportunities for community service), ensuring that students “are healthy and fit” and having them “appreciate the nation’s diverse heritage.”

Meanwhile, state supreme courts have defined goals broadly.  The New York State Court of Appeals requires schools to ensure that graduates can be competent voters and jurors.  Elsewhere, courts require drama and music appreciation as school outcomes.  But these are hard to measure; the same states now evaluate schools only by test scores.

Academics may be schools’ most important activity, but perhaps Americans should sacrifice a few points in seniors’ math scores if that is what it takes to inspire more of them to register to vote. Perhaps not. The public cannot debate these choices if schools are accountable only for basic skills results. Creative teachers can assess the capacities leading to responsible citizenship, but not with standardized paper-and-pencil exams.

Standardized tests have improved many American schools. Nonetheless, society pays a price for this progress. If Americans do not equally demand accountability for less easily measured outcomes, they risk the balanced program they seek from public education.

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