Testing Takes Teachers To Task

President Bush signs into law a sweeping federal education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, requiring that students be tested periodically in reading and math in this Jan. 8, 2002, file photo at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio.
This column was written by Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters.
What would you think if you opened the Wall Street Journal to find an op-ed arguing that money managers should not be measured against performance benchmarks like the S&P? Further, the author argues, managers should not have to report performance figures to clients at all because it deters otherwise hardworking people from the profession because they believe that money management cannot be distilled into a quantitative measure.

It is difficult to imagine that such an article would appear in the Journal, which has championed measurement of standards in nearly all economic and public-policy endeavors. But change "money managers" to "public-school teachers" in the above hypothetical and you have the very real op-ed lambasting the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) by American Enterprise Institute fellow Charles Murray that appeared in Tuesday's Journal.

Murray, a conservative most renowned for his book "Losing Ground," which was a highly influential criticism of the modern welfare state, joins the chorus of NCLB discontents in arguing that high-stakes testing narrows student learning to include only test-taking skills, and that it discourages teachers whose autonomy is threatened. These are popular mantras of the teacher unions and others opposed to reforming the nation's public-school system.

But these criticisms would only be valid if "teaching to the test" meant that students weren't also learning how to read and add. Reducing teacher autonomy by requiring students to learn tested material is only worrisome if it doesn't also produce real learning.

In a study for the Manhattan Institute, we empirically examined whether Murray's criticism is valid. If the accusation that high-stakes testing leads only to drilling and not real learning is correct, then the results of high-stakes tests should differ dramatically from the results of other measures of student achievement where no stakes are attached. After all, no one has an incentive to teach-to or otherwise manipulate low-stakes tests. A number of states, as well as several school districts, administered nationally respected standardized tests on which there were no stakes attached, in addition to the mandated high-stakes test. To see if the learning measured by the high-stakes test would be confirmed by the results of the low-stakes test, we compared their results.