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OP-ED | We Should Not Measure Student Success By Test Scores

by Sarah Darer Littman | Jan 13, 2012 11:33am
(11) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

A few months back I got into an interesting discussion with my high school friends on Facebook about the books we read in our tenth grade advanced English class at Westhill High School in Stamford. My friend Debbie, who’s clearly even more of a pack rat than my mother, still had the syllabus, and was able to rattle off impressively long list of books that we’d read and analyzed. When I compared it to the number of books my daughter, a high school sophomore, will get through this year in her advanced English class, it’s really quite astounding.

But actually, it’s not. When I look at the school calendar, the entire month of March is lost to CMT/CAPT testing.  And that’s just the actual testing. Much of the month before will be devoted to exercises that prepare students for the tests. Not for reading great works of literature and learning to use critical thinking skills, but rather for learning test taking skills. This year my daughter has already taken the PSATs, and will soon be facing the pressure of prepping for the SATs, and then AP exams. All this, while keeping up with homework, participating in extracurricular activities and actually trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. Oh yeah, and actually getting a bit of sleep once in a while, because teenagers actually need that.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy set forth his goals for reform in his Dec. 20th letter to educators. Various educational constituencies have been putting forth proposals since then, including the CEA, and CT Association of Public School Superintendents.

However, when I read that ConnCan’s CEO Patrick Riccards said “there is still no dispute that test scores have to be a primary driver to that formula,” I must beg to differ. I dispute that, wholeheartedly, and I am not alone.

The one thing that is indisputable is that good teachers create value , and great teachers can change the course of a child’s life. Yet the high stakes test score driven culture promoted by Riccards and the organizations he represents is forcing good teachers out of the schools. A good friend of mine, the acclaimed author Jordan Sonnenblick, taught middle school until he felt compelled to leave the profession in 2008. Jordan loved his kids and loved teaching. You’d have been thrilled if your kids were lucky enough to have him for English. He wrote a moving essay about why NCLB drove him to quit:

“Never mind the fact that the state tests are insanely invalid, that they’re graded by the lowest bidder, that the test-prep materials are rushed to press by fly-by-night companies, riddled with errors and stinking of the absolute worst in half-baked pedagogy. Never mind that the expense of hiring these companies as “consultants” sucks the lifeblood out of libraries and tech budgets. And never mind the ultimate irony, that replacing every good aspect of school with test prep will undoubtedly result inlower test scores. The reality is that the leaders of this great nation are working very hard to turn our children into undereducated test drones. And we are letting them get away with it.”

Employers complaining to Malloy that they can’t find qualified candidates are not going to get them by more standardized testing, no matter what the Patrick Riccards of the world tell you. The reason our kids aren’t qualified is because we’ve gutted their learning time with too much testing, hamstrung the teachers by making them teach to the test and and cut programs that encourage critical thinking. In a 21st century global society, the ability to synthesize and make connections, and technical skills (yet our school systems block many of the websites that would enable them to learn to utilize those skills) that will give students the flexibility to survive in the workplace.

Oh, and then there’s the cheating. Michelle Rhee, mouthpiece of the “our kids are a sum of their test scores” movement and star of its propaganda piece, Waiting for Superman, has never been particularly press shy, even going as far as to invite the documentary cameras for PBS in while she fired a school principal. Yet since it has been revealed that the poster boy for her reforms in DC, Wayne Ryan, was falsifying test scores at the Noyes Educational Complex, she has been strangely silent. Noyes’ cheating came to light after a father become suspicious of his daughter’s high math scores because she couldn’t perform basic arithmetic functions. Yet when he brought his suspicions to the school, Rhee banned him from setting foot on the school campus. And the DC cheating scandal is just one of many nationwide.

So who, exactly, is this all testing benefiting? I’ll tell you one thing. It’s not our kids.

Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

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(11) Comments

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | January 14, 2012  1:44pm


Let’s measure them based on the Jock or Nerds scale.

Testing has its place and keeps the system honest even if there are individual cases of gerrymandering. We don’t throw out the electoral process because of some voter fraud and district border disputes.

My complaint with testing is a common one dating back to my teaching days: Do you award the Little Miss Avon’s who always take the average kids in the average classes and produces average results doing the contracted minimums or do you award the guy that takes the at-risk class, purchases the classroom computers out of his own pocket money, gets them involved in extra-curricula rs like journalism using the said computers, and inspires them kids and likely saves a few along the way? His kids still test below average on test measures so how do you calculate absolute value?

Sure there are comparative peer group measures and other measures that are more accurate but just as easily gamed and just as deficient as present test models in creating an accurate metric for ‘value’.

Even the study you cite has its critics. The individual may benefit but society may not. It’s the rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic mathematical model. Sure it matters to Lenoardo DiCaprio if he lives or dies. Does society care who got the last seat on the life boat? The inspired student (Leonardo) or another similar Irishman of similar qualifications? Or is it a zero sum competition for society given XXX number of slots?

posted by: stephrrivera | January 14, 2012  7:40pm

Loved your article, Sarah! I was trying to find more supporters who believe Standardized Test cannot be held accountable for measuring anyone’s success. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the “#TakeTheTest” Tweeting movement which requests elected officials to take the tests themselves. Here is the link to that article: ( and here is the link to the petition: ( I hope you have the time to look at and hopefully sign. I will add CEO Patrick Riccards to the list as well. I look forward to reading more of your work! The best, Stephanie Rivera

posted by: saramerica | January 14, 2012  11:27pm


I don’t disagree that there is a place for SOME testing. But to say that test results should be the primary method of evaluating teacher, student and school success, like Riccards et al, doesn’t benefit students. We’re not teaching kids to engage in critical thinking and become lifetime learners, we’re teaching them how to take tests. What’s going to be more relevant in the workplace?

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | January 15, 2012  11:18am


Playing Devil’s Advocatre here Sara, but there is the argument that we don’t value facts enough. There are definitive answers to some questions.

I can’t argue with forcing kids to learn their multiplication tables. Can you?

Try teaching Business Math to 9th graders and realizing that 50% of the class can’t do decimals or fractions at all—a prerequisite.

Of that group, half (25% of the class) can’t multiply or divide (another prerequisite) and 10% of the class is lost when carrying numbers for addition or subtraction.

How does that happen? In part due to a lack of standards between schools and some that use social promotion as policy.

Then get into the alternatives.

What percentage has to go to special ed because that’s the only way to get the remediation resources and individual attention necessary? More expense.

How slowly should the class progress? At the norm? Or slow enough to get the 25% who can’t do decimals and fraction up to speed while 50% are bored and start acting up.

Individual study? After school? Study periods?

Having been there I know the issues. Sure the Business Math teacher has to work hard. But Why? Because other teachers did not do their job and did the easy social promotion thing and sent unqualified kids to another school.

And that means the whole profession should get a raise and additional resources at taxpayers expense and tell their weepy tales of how hard they work covering up for other teachers?

It’s not a black and white issue.

I’m in favor of tracking the kids who were socially promoted and docking the pay of their past teachers who promoted them as a convenience. How’s that for radical accountability. Malpractice!

The kids didn’t create the problem: the teachers did. And the teachers want a monetary award for doing so?

posted by: saramerica | January 15, 2012  1:56pm


I agree with what you’re saying about kids needing to know basic math facts. But look at the DC cheating case. It was uncovered because the father of the girl recognized his daughter was getting good math test scores despite the fact she couldn’t before basic math functions and tried to query. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for testing. But it should be ONE of many tools, not the be all and end all. Certain kids (and Malloy admits he was one of them) no matter what you do, will not perform well on standardized tests. They might show some improvement, but they don’t do well. They have a different learning style. That’s why some kids do better with the ACT than they do on the SAT. I have two very different kids with very different learning styles. They are both very bright but learn differently. It takes a lot of work as a parent to support them, and fortunately I have the education myself to be able to research and learn about their needs and financial resources to get help if they need it. Believe me, I think every single day about what I’d do if that weren’t available to us and how my kid’s life would have been very, very different.  So what I’m saying is that ONE TEST DOESN’T FIT ALL. So it’s not fair to make that one test the ONLY way to judge a child’s progress or a teacher’s value. There HAVE to be other factors - like peer team evaluation, etc.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | January 15, 2012  7:56pm


Here’s an example of the positive impact testing can have in CT (link below).

Rapid identification and leveraging resources on a just-in-time basis rather than 4 years too late after successive years of social promotion.

No panaceas but yes, these tests are as much about teacher accountability and changing the culture of passing problems upstream as much as learning. It doesn’t quite addrees the exiting students who are leaving to another facility who get socially booted up another level.

posted by: paxgirl | January 16, 2012  10:01am

Thank you Sarah, for voicing the problems of the testing culture. To the commentor who spoke about math facts: practicing Math Facts helps students to learn them; practicing test-taking does not. The test-is-God mentality is systematically draining the love for learning out of the minds of our children.

posted by: saramerica | January 16, 2012  10:27am


A) I feel like you are trying very hard to miss the point I’m trying to make and
B) that article doesn’t negate what I am saying, which is that there is no “One size fits” all testing solution, and that it should be ONE TOOL in the tool box, not THE ONLY TOOL. I am in no way saying “all testing is bad.” My point is to ONLY judge on testing is seriously misguided, as we’ve seen from the disaster of called NCLB. Malloy started his speech letter to educators by saying that employers can’t find qualified applicants. In my author life I visit schools and speak to teachers all the time and as a political writer I talk to them about these issues. Employers need candidates who can think for themselves, have critical thinking skills and are technologically literate. So what are we doing? We’re cutting school librarians - the people who teach the technological literacy and help kids develop critical thinking in terms of evaluating data they’re bombarded with every day on the web (the folks who say Google is as good as a librarian are clearly totally uneducated themselves, even more so now that we’ve got Google social search) . We’re cutting the programs that make them into well rounded, thinking individuals. And we’re teaching them to “perform” for tests instead of actually teaching them how to LEARN.

Before you show me another example of how testing is good, stop and read what I just said. I am not against ALL testing. But I resent that my kid is going to read a third fewer novels in English than I did in 10th grade because of the time spent testing. How is THAT an improvement in education?

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | January 16, 2012  2:48pm


I’m not purposely trying to miss your point at all.

I’m against one size fits all testing as well. Comprehensive tests at 4rh grade and 8th grade and 12th grade (similar to the NY Regents or ACT or AP subject area exams—choose your weapon) are generally enough.

For the in-between grades I can see testing the identified at-risk groups to determine IEP and system resource needs. A good system would include opting out for students with a history of normal progress who generally don’t need an IEP or additional resources as determined by their teachers and signed off and held accountable.

Then we get into the claims of racism as testing at-risk students would inadvertently target minorities. So to be politically correct we over-test everybody rather than a targeted needs group.

You may have missed my point as well. Teachers end up doing remedial work and slowing down classes when there are at-risk students in there as well due to social promotion and poor standards for advancement. It’s a sticky wicket. One way or the other the kids have to be brought up to standards.

We could get into a whole discussion on the failures of Mainstreaming as well. Most schools have figured out ways to get around that issue.

I’m all in favor of school vouchers for public, parochial and home schooling to encourage the industrious and talented to explore other options and to allow parents free choice.

An argument can be made we spend way too much time and money on remedial students and too little on nurturing the best and brightest.

Do we spend too much time on testing? I’m sure we do. And we spend too much money nurturing the teacher unions one-size-fits-all ‘don’t hold us accountable’ mentality too. And pandering to racial and ethnic group interests. And politicizing education funding and programs to garner votes. And so on…..

I took 5 AP classes in the early 70s and what is the terminal goal of an AP test? An exam! Yes, critical thinking makes up a good chunk of the coursework but you can’t get around the darn progress tests! At any level.

Did you take the CPA? And its attempts to include ethics and critical thinking? Bwaah Haaah Haaah. Or the Bar exam?

posted by: Jay | January 16, 2012  5:38pm

I totally agree.  As a professor who gets students from high school right away, I can say that they are under prepared.  I thought I was under prepared when I graduated high school, and I was.  However, many high school kids today are not ready for college.  They can pass a pre-packaged test though.  Now I know that not everyone wants to go to college.  I will argue about that later.  But the point is every student should graduate from High School prepared to go to college.  Even if they do not want to go!!!  Because? they might change their minds.  How many of us at 18 knew what we would be doing at 30?  If the graduate prepared, they can make the educated choice to go to college or not.  Not because they are ill prepared. Secondly, taking tests are bogus.  SAT’s and ACT’s only tell us how a student might perform in a college.  However, that stat is also bogus.  Because, as many will tell you, it is the individual’s determination that determines how they will perform.  That is 90% of battle.  I had a lousy ACT score and now have 2 MA degrees and will finish my doctorate later.  Boy were they wrong. 

While some testing is needed, I do think that the problem for kids in high school are numerous.  First, they don’t want to be there.  But for some reason many continue to go.  One can drop out at 16.  They do know that if they don’t get that piece of paper, diploma, they won’t even qualify for a job that requires a paper hat. Second, the writer of the article is correct.  Too much time is taken up in teaching to the test.  What about critical thinking skills?  OH that would be a disaster we don’t want our students to think!!!!, the horror.  My exams require them to read and digest large amounts of information ant then synthesize them into an answer.  Students have a hard time with this when they can’t even get the verb tense correct.  I am getting students who can answer simple questions, but cannot read for content or think for themselves.  I agree, math and science are important.  However, communication is also very important and learning to determine what sources are reliable and what are not.  This is something that takes time to teach and one cannot give a simple multiple choice test on that. It is time to take the stand, NCLB does not work, testing is important but should not be the largest part of the equation.  We have to look at a complete education not the fractions that are just quantifiable.

posted by: Jay | January 16, 2012  5:43pm

Yes, what has really happened here is that schools have learned how to get high test scores.  They send lower performing children to other schools while their peers take the test.  Then you have the DC scandal where the principal was changing the test scores.  There are numerous ways to create test scores and what has happened is that schools have learned fancy techniques to pad their scores.  Its so bad that we can question whether it is worth having tests at all.