The harsh reality is that behind the school choice movement is some people’s belief that public schools just aren’t doing a good job of educating children. This belief is bolstered by U.S. students’ disappointing performance on international tests and data showing that an increasing number of entering college freshmen need remedial course work. Despite alternative explanations of this evidence, the negative views of our public schools feed a more general movement toward privatization by the powers that be.
When it comes to educational assessment systems and the tests they employ, changes in school governance will not lessen the importance of testing. Testing is an integral part of learning, and it’s vital for the evaluation of the effectiveness of school programs. Teachers use tests for the former purpose and schools, districts, and states use them for the latter.
Teachers now have ready access to professionally developed tools that they can use for both formative purposes (assessment for learning during the learning) and summative purposes (assessment of learning for grades). Online resources can allow them to be facilitators of learning, rather than sources of knowledge, which frees up teachers’ time to plan, develop, collaborate, and even personalize instruction.
Schools of any kind, districts, and states rely on testing to let their leaders and constituents know if their instructional programs are effective and to identify areas of weakness so that improvement efforts can best succeed. Some school choices (e.g., private charter schools) may not be required to administer state assessments to their students. That’s too bad, because these tests are of high quality and designed to measure state content standards that are comprehensive and rigorous. Developed for the general population of students, they discriminate at many ability levels—that is, they include easier items for students of lower ability and tougher items to challenge the more capable students. Avoiding some form of standardized testing means that these schools—and their students—miss out on the benefits of external, objective program evaluation.
Changes in curricular emphases over time, changes in testing practices, and changes in school governance will continue; but testing will always play its vital roles in education.