Actor Matt Damon came out to the public four years ago about his opposition to the focus on standardized testing in pubic education. He opposed the idea of making the teachers accountable for student performance on standardized tests. He opposed the narrowing of focus that such tests create in the classroom. Most importantly, he criticized the test’s ability to tell us anything meaningful about the student.

“…I had incredible teachers. And as I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all of these things came from the way that I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have made me so successful  professionally — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested.”

Today, Kevin Wellner, a professor of education and the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of “Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give All Children an Even Chance,”  and Patricia Levesque, former deputy chief of staff for education under Gov. Jeb Bush and chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, debated in the New York Times about the need for standardized testing.  Wellner agreed with Matt Damon (and now thousands of parents across the country) that “the evidence shows [standardized testing] has done more harm than good, with test scores being pursued at the expense of deeper, broader learning.”

Instead of the tests being a source of useful information to the teacher to help address the needs of the child, Wellner said, it becomes merely a self sustaining system for the testing companies.

“The test-based accountability machinery has now reached overwhelming size and dominance. This machine runs on our children’s test scores, and the growing opt-out movement is powerful because it starves the machine of its fuel. Without a continuous supply of new scores, the machine grinds to a halt.”

Both Wellner and Levesque focus on the modern progressive mantra of “equity” in education. Their goal is the same as the reformers in general, to reduce the performance gap, i.e. make the scores on standardized tests the same for all demographic subgroups. Somehow Wellner equates equity of opportunity in education to improved test scores. But Wellner at least recognizes that focusing on the areas where there is a gap that we test does not produce the desired outcome.

“Simple logic tells us that if schools shift substantial time and energy toward reading and math, students should learn substantially more in those two subjects. But even that hasn’t happened. At best, some research suggests a small upward trend in reading and math scores subsequent to the N.C.L.B. reforms; other research suggests no uptick at all.”

The contention in his book is that we can reduce the gap if we, as a society, focus on the other causes of poor performance, primarily poverty and the destruction of the family. He is a strong believer in pre-school. His number one suggestion is to get children into an influential environment other than the home as soon as possible since the foundation of the gap is laid in the very early years.

My personal opinion is that by doing this we will only cement in place the weaknesses of the poor culture and further convince them that they are not capable of raising their own children. This will soon become truth for hundreds of low income families who will be raised to believe that only a government run school, that provides all meals, physical and mental health care and guidance counseling, can actually raise their children.

Levesque remains fixated on the need for annual testing to assure that “no child falls through the cracks.” That broad phrase covers the situations that Wellner refers to, where the family does not actively support the education process or provide reinforcement of the value of education. In such families children do not do the work to educate themselves, which is really where the education Damon refers to comes from. They do not recognize opportunities to learn, they display no curiosity, and they sometimes actively resist doing anything that might lead to learning. Teachers can get beaten down by such students. Its not that such teachers forget about such students, but even the best can get tired of beating their heads against a brick wall who does not want to be part of the process.

The current system does not have a mechanism to deal with such students. The absurdity of having an 11 year old in 2nd grade because they could not pass a reading test is a reality that public schools must face. Having a child repeat all of a grade because of a reading test score is neither practical nor useful. Offering extensive reading support is effective though limited. The “success” of Florida 4th grade reading scores mentioned by Levesque was achieved by a number of factors, including the creation of the Florida Center For Reading Research, not just by annual testing. However, the success was short lived because 8th grade reading scores did not improve in FL in the same time period. There is the belief that a magic bullet exists for all poor performance, and then there is reality.

However, if the purpose of standardized testing is to point out where students are not meeting the goals so that resources may be directed to those areas, which is the position of the civil rights groups who are lobbying Congress to keep annual standardized testing in the reauthorization of ESEA,  and it is well understood that the test scores best correlate to family income not student knowledge, why don’t we stop spending money on the annual tests and have districts merely report the average family income of their student population in order to receive federal funds? Such basic reporting is all that is needed for WIC of TANF programs. Why the need for the expensive metric in public schools?

Back in the late 70’s Damon’s mother refused the testing for him, telling the principal, ‘It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it will just make him nervous.’  She was way ahead of the opt out curve and her choices don’t seem to have negatively affected her son’s outcomes. For those who wring their hands that having students opt out of the testing will negatively affect the school as a whole due to funding threats for non-participation, the words of NY Chancellor   Tisch should be reassuring. Tisch took a hard line in opposing those who were opting out of the NY tests. According to the Washington Post she first “reminded students that it’s a hard-knock life by threatening ‘a national test.”  Then ,when the numbers refusing the test continued to rise, she threatened that, “‘we’ have the right to use discretion and withhold funds to districts. When that didn’t stem opt outs, she decided that threats do not work and funding should not be withheld.”

Government can use any metric it chooses to justify its funding choices. Unfortunately for public schools, the metric it has chosen is a very expensive one both in terms of actual dollars and also curricular choices and teaching time.  It is also, as Wellner points out, not very effective at reaching the stated goal of reduced performance gap. Think of how much more our schools could do with the finite resources they have if they didn’t have to invest so heavily in the annual testing machine.


Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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