A Punitive Mindset Ruins Good Testing Data

Published by — Standardized tests are fantastically useful.  But schools can’t be harangued, threatened or sanctioned into improvement.


The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our standardized achievement testing, but in what we do with said testing.  Achievement data are fantastically useful.  These days virtually every industry collects and analyses the best information available to make smart decisions.  So the recent groundswell aimed at ending the flow of testing information is akin to insisting we all stick our fingers in our ears and holler:  We don’t want to hear it!

Easy now.  Let the data speak.  Just quit jumping to ill-considered actions.

But the situation has gotten so bad, parents are refusing to allow their children to take standardized achievement tests.  Congress, seemingly stuck in brute partisanship, is arming for war over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known since 2001 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  One huge battle will be testing versus no testing.  Likely it will focus on money, although the $34 per kid for state and federal testing seems a small price to pay to find out if the taxpayers’ $600 trillion dollar annual investment in public education is getting results.  That’s trillion with a “t.”  We can spare $1.7 billion, with a “b,” to do a check-up.

How testing became a monster.

The one great thing NCLB did for the nation was goad states into building robust data systems.  Though far from perfect, even state-designed testing programs surfaced glaring racial and socio-economic disparities.  Tests revealed that special-needs children and non-native English speakers often languished in segregated programs, “protected” from higher expectations.  It wasn’t pretty.  Still isn’t.  But sunlight on the plight of the underserved inspired a lot of creative thinking about how to narrow the gaps.  As a nation, we’re grown uncomfortable with these disparities.  And that’s a good thing.

A very bad thing, though, was that punishment was baked into NCLB from the get-go.  In the name of “accountability,” the 2001 law disciplined failing schools with an a menu of escalating sanctions including humiliation and threats of state takeover — as if states had the capacity to take over schools.  Annually, all schools had to meet rising achievement benchmarks with goal of having all students “proficient” by 2014.  Each year that a school bombed its benchmarks, the feds and states had license to trumpet failures in the media, impose insulting oversight, and force the schools to write the parents about their failures.  NCLB was a big, bad Dad that believed he’d get results by yelling louder and getting meaner.

Everyone knew that achieving nationwide proficiency in 2014 was statistically impossible.  But oh well.  States issued new naming-and-shaming reports anyway.  Adding insult to injury, those most affected were low-income kids, segregated in forgotten, ill-supported schools where staff already felt punished enough.  Partly to protect their vulnerable kids, school staff began gaming the numbers, or even outright cheating, to avoid further demoralization.

Eventually, increasing amounts of school time were devoted to test prep, effectively passing the pain on to the kids.  Neither the feds, states, nor researchers recommended becoming test-prep factories.  Sure enough, test-prep barely budged academic performance.  But many schools argued that they had no choice but to focus on the test results because of perceived threats to their jobs.  Then situation made the parents crazy.  All parties blame the tests themselves.  And here we are.

Exactly who is responsible for kids’ learning?

Currently Finland’s high-performing schools are Education’s darling.  Interestingly, their students are tested constantly, but to good effect.  As Anu Partanen writes in a recent Atlantic piece about Finnish schools, “teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.”  At the end of high school, students must pass nationally-mandated high-school exit exams, so there is a goal and objective measure of success at the end.

How schools get there is their business.  The Finnish feds regularly check up on schools across the country with tests, but their purpose is to make sure the schools and kids are doing well.  It’s not in their culture to think that the way to produce improvement is to get all nasty at schools that struggle.

On the contrary, the Finns have the attitude that testing provides superb data to help teachers collaborate with one another, along with the child and family, to ensure each kid’s success.  Teachers have enormous responsibility for student learning, but they’re not alone; they lead a circle of adults who own that child’s success, as defined by observation as well as objective data.

By all means test, and even publish the results.

But for the foreseeable future, the feds and states need to rethink their get-tough relationship to school improvement.  NCLB made it painfully clear schools can’t be harangued, threatened or sanctioned into improvement.  (People can’t either.)  So for now, collect data on the kids’ achievement.  And publish it.  But then study it carefully, discuss it, take responsibility for it.  Make sure the data becomes useful wisdom, and quit using test scores as billy clubs.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Accuplacer Exam Can Kill College Careers

Published by  — A lack of attention to the role of the Accuplacer exam has killed countless college careers even before they begin.

Behold the humble Accuplacer exam.

Nothing nips college careers in the bud quite so fatally. So with recent national fussing about improving college completions rates, this obscure placement test needs our attention.

The Accuplacer is the sister of the more famous, more highly-regarded SAT — the Scholastic Assessment Test. Their parent company is the College Board.

Never heard of it? Community colleges administer tens of thousands of them every year. (There are similar, but lesser-used tests.) The kicker is that bombing the little-known Accuplacer is a bigger obstacle to a college diploma than poor scores on the SAT, ACT, or any high-stakes exams required by some states to get a diploma.

Let’s consider the all-too-common example of Suzi Q. She frolicked through high school, more concerned with social life than academics. Homework often suffered, but she was a “good,” meaning a compliant student. And her ability to cram for tests helped her earn a 3.0. So with the guidance of a counselor, Suzi decides to pursue a healthcare career, perhaps to become a phlebotomist or radiology technician, which require an Associates Degree.

In theory, a high school diploma certifies that, at a minimum, a graduate has 10th-grade skills. High schools give the state tests required by No Child Left Behind at the end of 10th or beginning of 11th grade to assess the quality of kids’ 10th-grade skills.

In reality, diplomas are unreliable certifications. Some state exams are so undemanding that passing them means little. Some states award diplomas without requiring exams. Making students pass tests to get a diploma is controversial because it promotes dropping out and denies diplomas to seriously-challenged kids. States haven’t quite figured this one out yet.

So colleges need the Accuplacer to assess those 10th-grade skills.

Suzi could have skipped the test if she’d done well on her SATs. But SATs cost students money, so she didn’t want to try again, especially since the SAT is long, hard and associated with 4-year colleges.

But no one mentioned that the Accuplacer was waiting for her. Her college advisor tells her it’s not a test anyone can pass or fail, but that’s kind of a lie, as you’ll see.

Accuplacer has a 55-minute writing test, and then shorter, 20-question tests in reading, sentence structure and math, that students finish at their own pace. The battery takes between two and two-and-a-half hours.

According to the 2011 report, “Assessing Developmental Assessment in Community Colleges”, about 65 percent of the students who take this test nationally need at least one remedial course.

Last year 61 percent of the 2116 students who entered Community College of Rhode Island needed at least one remedial course. The rate at North Carolina community colleges was 64 percent. In New York’s City University system, CUNY, the rate was 75 percent, with about 25 percent needing all three remedial courses.

American community colleges are the land of second chances, so some students are coming back to school after a hiatus. But most are straight from high school.

Suzi’s results were disappointing. Her reading was okay, writing not so much, and math was a disaster. Her college advisor explains that before she can take courses that count toward a degree, she’ll have to take a remedial writing course and a low-level math course. Assuming she passes both of those, she’ll still have to take an advanced math course to get the foundational skills for credit-bearing classes.

Many students – some colleges report as many as half – never even register for the remedial classes. End of college-career story.

Suzi can re-take the Accuplacer in a few weeks to see if she can get a better score, but the semester will already be underway.

So she registers anyway, without fully understanding that she’ll be paying course fees for a semester or more without really being a college-level student.

Statistically, Suzi will probably walk away well before getting that Associates Degree.

As is always the case with education, everyone is to blame for this mess. Poor parenting, the media, and all sorts of cultural problems drag down academics. Suzi herself is hardly blameless. But she could have gotten help, or at least a heads-up from her high school.

The Accuplacer sample questions show that the test is not very hard. You’ll do fine if percentages and subject-verb agreement are fairly deep in your blood. But rusty basic skills will send you into a black hole of remediation.

Accuplacer scores are good for two years, after which students need retesting.

So high schools should give the Accuplacer at the beginning of kids’ senior year. Promise them that if they prove themselves “proficient” on the state exams, they can skip the Accuplacer. Good incentive. Then those who still end up having to take it will either pass and have a ticket to credit-bearing courses, or they’ll know where they stand and have time to do something about it.

In an ideal world, the high-school diploma would take care of this problem.

But in the meantime, it would be a favor to the kids and to our need for more college graduates to bring the Accuplacer out of the shadows, where it has been a stumbling block for far too long.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at

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