(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)
To test, or not to test? That is the question at the center of one of Matt Barnum’s latest and last articles at The 74 (he’s moving over to Chalkbeat). Taking opposite sides of the “testing and educational choice” question are Doug Harris and yours truly.
“If you’re not going to require anything, we’re not going to know anything about whether these programs worked or not,” said Doug Harris, a Tulane University professor who has done extensive research on school choice in New Orleans and has been a critic of DeVos’s approach to education reform. “When you put it that way, even the people who are somewhat supportive of the idea get a little squeamish.”
Not to (impose the state standardized) test:
“Since there is strong evidence that state testing mandates tend to have negative unintended consequences, such as narrowing the curriculum and distorting how schools teach kids, we’d rather that schools have the freedom to use the tests that are more closely aligned to their curriculum and give parents the freedom to choose the schools that work best for their kids,” said Jason Bedrick, of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs voucher and tax credit programs. [links added]
… Bedrick, of EdChoice, says he’s fine with requiring schools to administer a national test, but not the state exam, even if it means that studying the program then becomes difficult.
“As researchers, we’d like the apples-to-apples comparisons that a single test provides,” he wrote in an email. “However, as policymakers, we also have to do what’s in the best interests of kids.”
“The main point of choice policies is to empower parents to choose schools based on the criteria that are important to them, not just to raise [specific] test scores,” Bedrick said, citing factors such as student-teacher ratio, curriculum, and college acceptances.
Later in the piece, Barnum cites me saying, “We don’t think it is necessary to impose standardized tests. If parents demand that information, schools will provide it.” Harris disagrees:
“I think that’s hooey … Schools themselves, even if they wanted to provide that kind of information, can’t provide that in a way that’s comparable across schools — you have to have a coordinating mechanism for information.”
If only the market had a coordinating mechanism for information that parents used! Oh right, not only do such mechanisms already exist, but they’re also growing in popularity, and they get far more web traffic than any state education agency website:
GreatSchools.org is not the only website that ranks pre-K-12 schools. The Internet search engines Yelp and Google offer school ratings, as do websites such as Schooldigger.com and Privateschoolreview.com. But with 40 million annual unique visitors, GreatSchools is the one most used, according to Alexa Internet, which tracks Web traffic.
The site’s founder and chief executive officer, Bill Jackson, says GreatSchools wants to be more than just a school ratings site: He sees it developing into an association that serves parents in the same way that the AARP serves retirees, or that AAA represents drivers.
Perfect information? Of course not. Lots of room for improvement? Absolutely. But they already do more than any state agency to empower parents with the info they want.
And “want” is the key word there. EdChoice’s More Than Scores survey of parents of tax-scholarship students in Georgia found that most parents do *not* place a very high value on test scores:
Student performance on standardized test scores is one of the least important pieces of information upon which parents base their decision regarding the private school to which they send their children. Only 10.2 percent of the parents who completed the survey listed higher standardized test scores as one of their top five reasons why they chose a particular private school for their child.
Just ask real parents, such as, well… Doug Harris:
Research, including Harris’s, suggests that parents do generally place significant value on a school’s test scores, but it may not be the biggest factor driving school preferences.
As a parent himself considering private schools, Harris says he’s never asked any of them for their test scores. [emphasis added]
“Most of these decisions, and this is true public, private, or otherwise, are based more on reputation, on what your neighbors say,” he said.
Tests can be informative for parents, but policymakers should dial back their obsession. After all, they measure only a thin slice of what we want schools to provide. Parents take a more holistic view of their child’s education, and the narrow focus on tested subject can have negative unintended consequences. For example, one researcher recently acknowledged that one reason there “hasn’t been as much actual innovation [in the charter school sector] as maybe the original charter folks hoped” is that test-based accountability is hampering innovation:
[W]hen you have intense test-based accountability it really restricts what you can do and to what degree you can innovate because you have to put so many of your resources towards the same end. There are only so many ways to make test scores go up. So, I think that really restricts what they can do.”
That researcher? Doug Harris.