America's attempts to root out poor teaching through the use of high stakes tests may be harming learning, a new study says. Testing demands are driving schools to dumb down exam questions and encourage teachers to drill pupils in low-level skills at the expense of deeper understanding.
Intensive testing - American schools now do 45 million tests a year - are the linchpin of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act. The tests are central to a "data-driven" approach that aims to clamp down on ineffective teaching and ensure no student slips through the cracks.
Students' scores are sliced and diced into ethnic, income, disability and English proficiency groups, and schools must hit targets for each. If they miss test targets two years running, their students are free to switch to another school; three years in a row and students are entitled to free tutoring. If they continue to fall short, they face reconstitution with new staff or, ultimately, closure.
But, according to a study by Education Sector, a new Washington DC think-tank formed by President Clinton's ex-chief education aide Andrew Rotherham, testing "has become part of the problem in public education".
It acknowledges the good intentions of using testing to promote accountability and transparency. However, pressure to develop batteries of new tests is driving education officials and test suppliers to replace "constructive response" questions such as essays, with formulaic, machine-readable multiple-choice exams that are cheaper to produce and quicker to mark. Such tests offer only crude pictures of achievement, chiefly measuring low-level skills rather than higher-order understanding.
Kansas and Mississippi schools have scrapped non-multiple-choice exams and other states are moving in this direction, it said.
And, with so much riding on test results, schools are cramming students in rudimentary skills rather than doing richer, engaging teaching, the report said.
Dylan Wiliam, senior research director at New Jersey's educational testing service, purveyors of America's SAT exams, and professor of educational assessment at King's College London, said shallower teaching was not a necessary by-product of multiple-choice testing. However, "sanctions attached to failure are so great that many teachers feel drilling multiple-choice questions is what they (must) do".
"In every developed country, testing stakes have been raised, so you can't put the genie back in the bottle," said Mr Wiliam. "The holy grail now is to (devise) tests that encourage teachers to do more appropriate things."