Pondiscio: It’s Time to End the Testing Culture in America’s Schools — and Start Playing the Long Game to Produce Better Life Outcomes for At-Risk Kids

Paymon Rouhanifard, former superintendent of the Camden, New Jersey, school district, delivered a speech last week at the MIT School Access and Quality Summit in Boston, calling into question the testing and accountability orthodoxy that has guided education policy and defined much of ed reform’s agenda over the past two decades. “I believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits,” he stated bluntly. “We haven’t been honest about the trade-offs.”

The talk was politely received and briefly rattled around social media over the weekend. But it deserves to be more widely read and discussed.

The heart of Rouhanifard’s critique concerns the effects of the testing culture we have imposed on schools — particularly those attended by low-income children of color. “We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized,” he observed. “We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education, because we’ve placed most of our eggs in two baskets. We are implicitly encouraging schools to serve fewer English language learners and students with an [individualized education program]. We are spending less time on actual instruction, because that’s the system we’ve created.”

Brave stuff and real talk. But Rouhanifard hasn’t exactly gone full Bulworth here. The days of accountability hawks daring teachers unions and status quo apologists to pry standardized tests from their cold, dead fingers are mostly over. It’s been a decade since Rick Hess began sounding alarms about “the new stupid,” noting how education had pivoted from peevish resistance to performance measurements of any kind, to a giddy embrace of simplistic metrics, particularly third- through eighth-grade reading and math scores.

I’ve banged this drum myself for almost as long as Hess, noting that, if your goal is to boost test scores now, you’re incentivizing bad teaching by encouraging a vacuous skills-and-strategies approach to reading, conspiring against patient investment in knowledge and vocabulary, and sacrificing vast amounts of class time for test prep — exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we’re serious about educational equity and closing the achievement gap.

What gives Rouhanifard’s critique particular weight and force is the perspective from which he speaks. It’s a lot easier to criticize the rules of a game that make you look bad than one you’re winning. Rouhanifard played the testing, accountability, and data game well, believed in it, and benefited from it. On his watch in Camden, test scores rose steadily, albeit not very high on the “proficiency” metrics. Graduation rates were up and dropouts and suspensions down in what had, by some accounts, been the nation’s worst school district.

When he stepped down earlier this year, Rouhanifard was the subject of warm coverage in state and national media. Many of us in such a position might take a few victory laps and angle for our next gig as a big city ed chief. We’d be less inclined to use the spotlight to argue that we’re not playing the long game for at-risk kids.

“We are assuming if test scores in two subjects don’t dramatically improve within a tight time horizon, we should throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Rouhanifard told his MIT audience. By contrast, the long game involves investing in mental health clinics, no longer disregarding the arts and sciences, and generally pursuing not just higher test scores but better life outcomes for kids. He raised a few eyebrows by noting that test scores might go down if we turn our focus to “instruction and other critical components of a child’s education. If life outcomes are indeed what we are about,” he noted, “we should welcome state test scores going down!”

For my money, the most stinging rebuke to come out of his mouth at MIT was Rouhanifard’s observation that most of us in education reform wouldn’t tolerate at our own children’s schools what we have functionally imposed on other people’s children.  “Mostly affluent, mostly white schools shy away from heavy testing, and as a result, they are literally receiving an extra month of instruction — and usually with less overall time allotted to the school day,” he said. “The basic rule, what we would want for our own children, should apply to all kids.”

This is not a new idea. It echoes almost verbatim John Dewey, who said over a century ago, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

Wait. Isn’t it the other team that usually invokes Dewey? That’s another issue Rouhanifard nailed. “We should spend more time with front-line practitioners. With people who disagree with us.” I’ve never cared much for those who wave the bloody shirt and insist that those who’ve never been teachers shouldn’t be making policy. But Rouhanifard is right when he observes that “you are a function of who you spend time with.”

From a policy perspective, the long game involves much more than using blunt instruments of testing and accountability to separate good schools and teachers from bad ones. “All of us were well-intentioned in pushing this agenda, but the tools we developed were not effective in raising the bar on a wide scale,” notes Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, who was a colleague of Rouhanifard’s when the two worked in New York City’s Department of Education under Chancellor Joel Klein. Polakow-Suransky says he hopes Rouhanifard’s MIT speech triggers “a long overdue, more substantive conversation on the issue of testing and accountability.”

“Tests should inform and guide our actions, and not compel them,” Rouhanifard told his listeners at MIT. As shocking statements go, this one is only slightly more controversial than to suggest that a hammer is a better tool for driving nails than changing lightbulbs. But moments can matter as much as messages. Emily Hanford’s recent radio documentary on reading echoed things advocates have been saying for decades, but her well-timed piece was a hammer through glass. Perhaps Rouhanifard’s cri de coeur at MIT will similarly reach the right ears at the right time and achieve a similar effect. It’s the kind of candor the ed reform movement has long liked to congratulate itself for but seldom turns on our own policies and practices.

The challenge is not testing vs. not testing. It’s not accountability vs. none. Both bring benefits of different kinds, and both are required by a federal law that’s not going to change anytime soon. The challenge is to develop a policy vision that supports — not thwarts — the classroom practices and long-term student outcomes we seek. If your temptation is to say, well, if only the tests were shorter or better aligned, you’re either missing the point or haven’t set foot inside a school since, oh, 2002. The problem is the reductive culture of testing, which has come to shape and define American education, particularly in the kinds of schools attended by our most disadvantaged children.

This point doesn’t need further debate. It needs to be fixed.

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior adviser to Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education.

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