Something that I think drives at least some of my disagreements with other liberals about education policy is that I think a lot of middle class liberals implicitly underestimate the extent of really bad learning outcomes. Take this report (PDF) from the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund which notes “that 47% of adults (more than 200,000 individuals) in the City of Detroit are functionally illiterate, referring to the inability of an individual to use reading, speaking, writing, and computational skills in everyday life situations” and also that “within the tricounty region, there are a number of municipalities with illiteracy rates rivaling Detroit: Southfield at 24%, Warren at 17%, Inkster at 34%, Pontiac at 34%.”
Under those circumstances, I find it difficult to be seized with worry that schools are going to be ruined by teachers “teaching to the test” too much. It is true that school districts that have started taking testing more seriously now need to step up and also take the possibility of outright cheating more seriously. But the fact that huge numbers of kids are passing through school systems and not learning basic literacy drives home the fact that districts also need to take checking to see if the kids are learning anything more seriously. That means tests, and since it’s good to be able to compare different schools to one another that means standardized tests. It’s a limited tool, it shouldn’t be the sole criterion on which the effectiveness of anything is measured, but it’s also an important one.