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Semi-Convincing Tests

By Matthew Yglesias

"Semi-Convincing Tests"

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Talking Wire below I mentioned that I’d always found the “teaching to the test” critique of No Child Left Behind to be fairly unpersuasive. In one of his rare bits of persuasive-to-me rhetoric, George W. Bush observed “I’ve heard people say you’re teaching the test; if you teach a child to read, they’ll pass the test.” That seemed right to me. In some subjects — history comes to mind — I can imagine an effective “teach the test” method that doesn’t actually impart any historical knowledge. For reading and basic math skills, however, the easiest way to teach kids to pass a test seemed to me to be teaching reading and basic math. Indeed, I recall that my AP Physics class involved a hefty test-prep element, but fundamentally this was accomplished by . . . teaching me Newtonian Mechanics.

That said, I thought Episode 9 of The Wire did, in fact, successfully dramatize an example of “teaching the test” in a plausible way. Craig Jerald at Education Sector steps up to the plate to try and un-worry me. He’s only semi-convincing. He brings good evidence to bear that real teaching is a more effective way of improving test scores than is simple test prep. That, however, isn’t evidence that schools are not, in fact, doing what The Wire portrays them as doing. What’s more, the presumption behind the whole fix-the-schools drive is that the schools were doing a bad job ex ante of teaching reading and math. So you have a bunch of people who have not, historically, hit upon good methods of imparting reading and math scores to their kids. Now you tell them there will be consequences unless test scores go up. Sure, the best way to get them to go up would be to start teaching reading and math better. But if you’re talking about a bad school, then presumably the teachers and administrators haven’t found a way to get this done. So, instead they adopting the semi-effective method of doing narrow test prep. And the scores go up — at least somewhat. Then we proclaim ourselves cured of the bad schools problem. And yet, nobody’s learned.

Now, on the other hand, as true as that might be, it’s not clear how not testing would make things any better.

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