"Many Americans do not believe that the success of our students or of our schools can be measured by one test administered on one day, and I agree with them. This is not fair," Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., told the National Press Club last month.
As the House Education and Labor Committee he chairs is expected to roll out a draft for legislation to reauthorize the 2001 No Child Left Behind bill, Miller and fellow Democrats want to change NCLB testing.
Currently, the law requires that students be tested in math and reading every year between third-grade and eighth-grade, then once in high school. Miller explained he would add "multiple measures of success. These measures can no longer reflect just basic skills and memorization, but rather critical thinking and the ability to apply knowledge to new and challenging contexts."
On the one hand, Miller is right to push to improve NCLB. He wants to allow states to apply graduation rates toward their yearly NCLB progress scores and also would have states include history and science test scores.
On the other hand, when the education establishment touts testing for "critical thinking," that can be code for: Maybe the kid can't read, but look at the bright side, he's smart.
And when educrat groups -- such as the Forum on Educational Accountability -- recommend that NCLB add "comprehensive assessments systems," which would include portfolios (essays, drawing, reports) in order to offer "rich and challenging educational goals," beware. What sounds like more sophisticated testing could end up being more confusing and inconclusive. A kid who can draw does not mean a kid who can multiply.
"The great danger here is that it clouds the accountability system," noted Amy Wilkins, vice president of Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for higher standards in K-12 education.
No Child Left Behind's mission -- to help all children read and compute at grade level -- puts basics first so that children have the fundamentals in place to tackle more challenging subjects. Testing for problem-solving and critical thinking skills would only allow children who don't know the basics to score higher than they should.
Miller spoke to me on the telephone Wednesday about "drill and kill" and "teaching to the test." That's the standard line against standardized multiple-choice tests.
"It's goofy, they (the anti-test crowd) talk out of both sides of their mouth," Wilkins noted. Some educators complain that NCLB tests are confined to low-level skills and that they have to spend all their time teaching to the test. But: "If they're such low-level skills, why do you spend so much time teaching them?"
Besides, Wilkins noted, the NCLB tests "should not be comprehensive and test every standard." She likened NCLB testing -- which can consume from a couple hours to a day per year per student -- to "a dipstick" that allows educators to see if kids are making adequate progress toward mastering grade-level skills, and then hopefully move on.
Will the new NCLB draft include portfolios? Miller told me that a state might be able to include portfolios for English-language learners -- if the state has no valid test for that group, and thinks it can put together a good package and if the U.S. secretary of education approves. If the House education committee limits portfolios to that narrow area, so be it.
But on a larger scale, forget it. Teachers, parents and students already complain that there are too many tests. So the answer is: Another test? I don't think so.
The time it would take for teachers to grade portfolios is prohibitive. Most important of all, subjective grading defeats the whole purpose of NCLB. Washington passed this law because schools have graduated too many students who were not performing at grade level. The remedy is not a test that would allow graders to paper over the sorry fact that children cannot read.