The Next Disaster in American Education: Rising Test Scores

Anthony Ralston

As printed in the Sacramento Bee, 1 December 2002

No, that's not a misprint. Test scores have been rising in Texas for some time. Now they have started rising in California and, courtesy of the No Child Left Behind Act, scores will soon start rising in many other states. Not only will these rising test scores not herald an improvement in American education; they will serve to hide an inevitable further decline in American elementary and secondary education.

Improving education will always improve scores on well-designed tests. But when the central aim of educational change is just to improve test scores, improved education is seldom the result. The recent rise in math test scores in the Los Angeles Unified School District provide a good example of why this is so. When, as in California, you introduce a new, rather narrow curriculum, give teachers little flexibility in how they present this curriculum and hold teachers accountable for their pupils' scores on tests aimed at that curriculum, teachers will inevitably teach-to-the-test and the result, also inevitably, will be a rise in test scores. Do these higher tests scores reflect increased learning of mathematics? Almost certainly not. What the higher scores reflect is the learning of particular skills, often unrelated to the further study of mathematics and often at the expense of a broader curriculum that would really prepare students for the further study of mathematics.

Thus, rising scores on standardized tests are not only not a sign of significant learning (in mathematics and other subjects) but, as well, they hide continuing serious deficiencies in the mathematical learning of children. Still worse, they give politicians and, it must be said, some educationists something to crow about when nothing good is happening. Worst of all they give parents a false sense that the learning of their children is improving when it is not.

Actually, things are even worse than claimed above. Forcing teachers to teach to a rigid curriculum may give inadequate teachers (particularly, for elementary school teachers in mathematics) more security. But for fully professional, well-prepared teachers, this is a sure way to make them dissatisfied and too ready to leave a profession that is already hemorrhaging highly qualified teachers. By far the greatest need in American education today is to attract intellectually able teachers at all levels and in all subjects. The rigidities imposed by the testing regime mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act will set back the cause of upgrading the cadre of teachers we need in American classrooms by years if not decades.

Interestingly, just as rising test scores are sure to mask deepening problems in American education, falling test scores may be a good thing although few will recognize this. Japan regularly scores among the highest countries in international math and science tests. But despite this, there has been a growing belief among business leaders and others in Japan that the exam-driven focus and conformity generally in the Japanese education system does not prepare students well for the workplace. In recent years, there has been less conformity and more emphasis on trying to make children independent thinkers. The result? Lower scores on national tests and predictable hand-wringing in some education quarters. But almost certainly these lower scores are a sign of improved education in Japan just as rising scores will be a sign of poorer education in the U.S.