State Tests vs. School Choice


A few months ago, Richard Phelps attracted attention with an article in The Wilson Quarterly called "Teach to the Test?” Its argument is that "most of the problems with [school] testing have one surprising source: cheating by school administrators and teachers."

Last week an investigative report published in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution found indications of standardized test cheating in school systems throughout the US.

Certainly cheating of various types is a big problem in education. But it is not really that surprising. Where else would the highest stakes of evaluation be left up to the individuals or groups being evaluated? But these articles proceed from the unquestioned assumption that state tests are an appropriate way to hold schools accountable for quality. For instance, Richard Phelps wrote, “Without standardized tests, there would be no means for members of the public to reliably gauge learning in their schools.”

The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include.

I agree that the purpose of education is to increase academic skills. I agree that tests ought to be used to determine what students have learned. I agree that more learning is better. I do not agree with folks who say that testing is bad and that schools should not give tests because that stifles teacher creativity. I do not agree with the proposition that tests can’t measure what is important in education.

Neither do I agree, however, with the use of state-constructed tests to attempt to hold schools accountable for quality. It has taken me several years to come to this position. I have three main reasons.

First there is the issue of alignment. Whatever the state chooses to put on the test becomes, in essence, the required curriculum of all the schools in the state, even if it is wrong. The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include. For example, state tests for elementary age students in reading and math ignore fundamental areas of the curriculum. I refer to accuracy and fluency in decoding the meanings of words, in the statement (memorization) of mathematical facts, in mathematical calculations, and in spelling. State tests simply don’t bother to measure these pillars of an elementary education, even though they are critical to future educational success.

I run six charter schools, which due to our use of a trend-bucking curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI), mostly achieve better test scores than the school districts in which we reside. DI is a specific, scripted, sequential elementary curriculum (grades K through 5) that takes much of the guesswork out of teaching. The lessons are carefully crafted to be easily understood, build only on what has been taught in earlier lessons, and prepare students precisely for what is to come. There are programs for reading, math, spelling, and writing. All but the very lowest special education students can learn from these programs and emerge from elementary school with average or above average skills. DI is hated by the progressive educators at universities, but we love it, and so do our students and parents.

Curricula such as DI that focus on bringing all the fundamental student skills to mastery (including the ones not tested) must do so on top of teaching the things that are measured on the test — while other schools focus all their efforts on the test material. A majority of American elementary schools no longer teach spelling, for example, simply because it is not measured on the state tests. While learning how to spell is an essential skill, the state tests have pushed it out of the curriculum. Not to mention all the other critical content not tested and no longer taught.

Conversely, state tests focus strongly on a number of things that, although they sound good, are not skills to be taught but attributes of intelligence that we desire. These attributes are such things as the ability of bright elementary students to make inferences from unfamiliar texts, to write interesting imaginative stories, and to find creative solutions to unique word problems in mathematics.

These attributes, and their application, are not an emphasis of the very strong DI elementary curriculum. But if schools that use DI, such as my own, taught what is in our curriculum (what kids need) and ignored the less relevant, they would get lower state test scores and be branded as poor schools. Schools ought to be able to use their own tests to measure what their own curriculum plans to teach, and be evaluated on how well the school does what it claims it will do. Parents, of course, could select schools according to the nature of their claims as well as their performance.

Second, people forget important facts about state tests. One is that the results have no consequences for the children. Another is that these are children taking these tests. Children are subject to wide swings in their performance, often depending on testing circumstances. In our schools we have found children who have been well taught but who for years have failed the test. Yet they can reach not only "proficient" but “exceeds proficient” if their teacher sits next to them and makes them read the test aloud and gives them breaks when they get tired. Essentially we are making certain that they actually do their best on what to them is a very long test. This is not cheating. These practices are specifically allowed by the state rules for students who need them; they are called an “accommodation.”And it is an appropriate accommodation. It just shows the best that the student can do. Guess what? Children don’t always do their best. Sometimes they just guess their way through the test to get it over with. If those children go to another school, where no one they know or care about is monitoring their test performance or where they are allowed to do fun stuff when they are “done,” they will probably turn in a failing score the next year.

If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers.

Third is the issue of students' ability. Obviously, the more able students are, the easier it is for them to learn. The less able they are, the harder the teacher and the school must work to teach them. Scores on state tests are as much a measure of how smart the student body is, as they are a measure of how well the teachers teach. It is ridiculously unfair to ignore this fact and proclaim that high test scores mean a school is good and low test scores mean it is bad. That would be true only if the student bodies of the schools were evenly matched in IQ — which is never the case. It is a heavier lift to raise test scores in a school that enrolls many students with low ability, or learning difficulties; and until we begin to measure the weight of the load, we cannot claim to know who is stronger. If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers, just because their students get higher test scores.

We would be far better off if the states stopped giving their tests, instituted more school choice, and left it up to schools to find a way to prove they were doing a good job for the consumers — just as it happens in every other service industry. We could do it easily in our schools, without a state test. If we gave aligned end-of-year final exams for each of our DI programs and shared the results with parents, they would be blown away by what we teach. Few students outside of our schools could match that performance. That’s how you prove quality, not with bogus, we’ll-decide-what’s-important-to-learn, state tests.

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S. S. Carpenter

I agree with this. As a grandmother who still remembers falling behind in reading in second grade due to illness (more than wellness that year), and suffering undetected until 11th grade, I can say it is VITAL that DI or something close to it be allowed in schools. If I hadn't been rescued and helped immensely by a friend, I would not have the ability to even write this comment. Not kidding. (I'm a Published Poet over 24 times.)

Jim Henshaw

re this: "“Without standardized tests, there would be no means for members of the public to reliably gauge learning in their schools.”

Yes, without standardized government tests, there would be no way to tell if a teacher is any good at teaching. There would be no way to tell if a car was better or worse than its competition. There would be no way to tell if Harvard was better than the Southwestern Oregon School of Restaurant Management.

A really good way to tell if teachers are any good would be to do away with all public schools, and then see where parents enroll their students.

Don Crawford

In our six charter schools, after our lotteries have filled up all the available seats, we have waiting lists of people wishing to enroll their children that could double and triple the size of our schools. But the size of our charter schools is held constant by our authorizers--the government run school districts which "sponsor" us and therefore control how big we can get. In states with weak charter school laws the legislature gives the existing government schools a monopoly over the granting of charters and so they are the only route to get a charter school approved. It isn't much freedom, but it is some. We control our own curriculum and our own hiring and firing and finances.


Even amongst libertarians the word "private", seems to have lost its meaning.

Charter schools still receive state funding. The state and therefore the taxpayer have every right to decide how it's money is spent.

Nothing will change until parents, en masse, leave all state funded schools....But, of course, this will not happen. Primarily, because most parents want others to pay for their childerns' education/babysitting. Babysitting being what most schools run by government are.

Arguing over the best way to spend stolen money from the unconcerned is a waste of time.

Rodney Choate


Your observation deserves credit. As I too have pointed out in these pages, there is no morality in the state doing something it shouldn't be doing, and also no morality in a MIX of state and private action in something that the state shouldn't be doing. Any stray exceptions notwithstanding, the "school choice" schemes I've heard of are just new and (potentially) massive government programs, with the hope of "no strings attached" money by the recipients.

The schemes are just more government that will bring the people farther away from the memory of what a free society is.

The visitors opening line is exact: Private means private.

Don Crawford

As soon as we can pass a strong law giving a state tax credit for contributions to a scholarship fund in our state, it will become possible for private schools to compete with government run schools. Yes, the state has the right to demand whatever it wishes of the schools it funds--but that doesn't mean one can't point out the ineffectiveness of their "accountability" schemes. It is not a matter of preferring charter schools over private schools, it is a matter of doing what can be accomplished in our not-free market in education. I'd much rather run our schools as private schools--and we not much more expensive than most day cares--about $500 a month would pay our bills--and that's all we get per pupil from the state. But we have to "compete" with the free schooling offered from the government run schools. But I firmly believe that if everyone could get dollar-for-dollar tax credits on state taxes for money contributed to scholarship funds we could build a market for private education.

S. S. Carpenter

What if parents were to test their children? I know, "standardized" jumps to mind, but how about the testing be shared between schools and parents so that parents have the "care" injected forcibly back into their lives? I remember how my own father got involved suddenly when he realized I was falling behind. But I was lucky, my dad was a teacher. Not everyone has that. An idea. Is it remotely helpful?

Federal Farmer

As a high school history and government teacher, I'm very interested in this column from Liberty. I have my own disagreements with state-testing and therefore promote school choice.

However, I'm not sure I understand your definition of Direct Instruction. To me, DI is not the curriculum being taught, but a method of teaching it. DI is teaching through lecture or demonstration. In other words, a teacher stands at the front of the class, and students listen, take notes, and will take paper/pencil assessments periodically.

I do not have a problem with that method - we were just taught that it cannot be used for more than 15-20 minutes in a single class because of student attention spans. The rest of the class is to be taken up with inquiry-based assignments, discussion, active learning, etc.

Either way, you are correct about school choice. Privatization is the only way schools can be better.

Don Crawford

You are right. Lower case di or direct instruction is a method of teaching explicitly and with plenty of student and teacher interaction, in small bits, and teaching to mastery. Upper case DI or Direct Instruction is a set of carefully designed and sequenced instruction programs or curricula that teach fundamental academic skills in grades K-5 (mostly). They are sold by SRA McGraw-Hill and were designed by Zig Engelmann at the University of Oregon. The curricula are fully scripted and lessons are laid out for a whole year in each subject. They form a continuous curricular sequence from kindergarten to fifth grade where everything students need at each grade is taught ahead of time or in the previous grade.

Rodney Choate

I read the article because I've always been interested in the debate over standardized testing. Pretty much agreed with the author, and I hope my take on the issue causes some enjoyment or value.

I attended K through 8 (repeating 4th) at a private, religious school. Every year came "standardized achievement test time". I hated school when I was young, but I always did my best on the tests, and they showed that I was brighter than many others who seemed to get along better with school, and brighter than I seemed at first sight. Today, how I would love to have those old test scores to compare mine to the others again.

Important points: The tests were from PRIVATE testing company(ies), the school system and its customers WANTED to undergo the testing, we were NOT "taught to the test", and, as far as I know, the results of the tests were never used to single out any teacher, unless perhaps some kind of valid investigation had been performed. The test results were for ME, to tell me how I was doing on MY education, and an indicator of how the entire education system was performing for the tested students (parents, kids, teachers and school system).

You can do something correctly, or you can do something wrongly. As is normally the case, when the state is in the business of something it has no business in - it does it wrongly.

Rodney Choate, P.E., philosopher

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