Two Major Books Critically Evaluate Testing

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, November 2009


The Paradoxes of High Stakes Testing provides a well-argued, readable analysis of why high-stakes testing has damaged students, schools and society. In what is sadly his last book, Gerald Bracey's Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality provides a powerful critique of test-based "school reform" and important arguments for different approaches to schools, assessment, and accountability. Together, these works will arm any advocate, organizer, parent or educator with reasoning and evidence to confront proponents of the current flawed system.

In Education Hell, Jerry Bracey – the measurement expert, blogger and author who died October 20 – explores the evolution of current school reforms, including the emerging dominance of tests in controlling policymaker actions and public discourse. He describes the limits of standardized tests and the damaging consequences from their overuse and misuse.

Of particular interest is "The Lost Lessons of the Eight-Year Study." In the 1940s, a group of public and private high schools persuaded 300 colleges to waive their usual entrance requirements for the schools' students, freeing them to engage in progressive education practices that revised the traditional college-oriented curriculum, fostered greater democracy in the schools, and changed teacher-student relations. Among the findings from a series of detailed studies is that graduates of these schools had greater success in college than their traditionally educated peers, and those from the six "most experimental" schools did even better. 

Schools in the Eight-Year Study developed 200 assessments, with heavy teacher involvement, and did not insist all students or all schools use the same instruments. Lead researcher Ralph Tyler said the assessments enabled a "comprehensive appraisal."

Bracey draws 10 lessons, including: "Testing should be a means of learning about individuals, not separating and sorting them"; and "Evaluation should lead to improved curriculum, instruction and decision making, not to the punishment of teachers and administrators."

The "Eight Year Study" shows it is possible to develop a system that employs diverse, multiple assessments.

Bracey draws important lessons as well about the role of education in a democratic society and the value of democracy within schools, with reprints from essays by Deborah Meier, Richard Gibboney and Nel Noddings. This chapter, like the rest of his book, is worth a close read. Even when you find points of disagreement, Bracey challenges you to think through your ideas more carefully.

In Paradoxes, measurement experts George Madaus, Michael Russell and Jennifer Higgins, all from Boston College, have written a narrower book, more focused on the tests and their uses, but with connections to wider issues. They explain with exceptional clarity "what is a test," making technical points easy to understand by those not technically versed.

In particular, they explore testing as a technology that embeds social relations in the tests. The test-development process remains largely hidden from understanding by non-experts while it "stacks the 'deck' in favor of certain values and groups in our society," those with the most power.

The authors trace the centuries-long history of testing, explaining why it became a desired solution to various social problems, but one that always carried negative as well as positive consequences. Thus, they are able to show how the history of testing helps us grasp the current "testing mania."

While the authors say that tests can have positive value, most of their discussion shows the damage to teaching, learning and students fostered by the over-reliance on very narrow variants of assessment technology. Concluding that testing is unlikely to end soon, they provide options for improving the technology.

For more than two decades, FairTest has noted that the U.S. regulates pet food better than tests. Madaus, Russell and Higgins conclude their book with a powerful case for an independent agency to monitor and regulate the tests that have a powerful impact on students and schools.