I usually avoid taking stances on issues in this blog for a few reasons, maybe because I'm early in my career and am not convinced I know the answers -- or maybe just because it's a lot easier to poke holes in the solutions of others. But here's one idea that's been in the back of my head for a few years now that just seems more and more appealing over time.
That idea? National tests.
Now, to be clear, the idea certainly has drawbacks. First of all, local control has been a hallmark of American education throughout our history and the ramifications, yet alone the legality, of national tests are hazy at best. National testing would, most certainly, have to be accompanied by national standards -- which probably wouldn't please local school boards. What if, for example, people in Peoria want to teach a certain skill in 5th grade while people in Kalamazoo want to teach it in 4th grade? Exceptions would have to be made for some part of any social studies test so that questions could be included about local history, geography, and the state bird. Despite all of this, I'm becoming more and more convinced that the positives outweigh the negatives.
One of the biggest complaints about NCLB is that it's an "unfunded mandate" and, as a result, states are forced to spend quite a bit of money on testing. Since state education departments have differing levels of financial resources and political will, the quality of tests vary widely across state -- some feel forced to use only cursory multiple choice tests while others have much more intensive, and more expensive, testing regimes.
Over at Eduwonkette, Jennifer Jennings, Aaron Pallas, and Dan Koretz have taken turns pointing out the flaws in the NY state test and the NYC school report cards that rely on their results (here, here, here, here, and read these comments). It's enough to make me feel badly for David Cantor, the press sectary for NYC schools, who has to defend the report card system.
And it's enough to make me think that this would be a heck of a lot easier if we could focus our monies and efforts on one test. It would mean that we could have test whose results were valid enough that ratings based on them would also have some validity. It would mean that kids in all states were being judged on the same criteria. It would mean that research would be a heck of a lot easier and more meaningul. And it would mean that districts and states could spend less time on figuring out how to evaluate students and more time on figuring out how to teach them.
In short, testing would cost less, be more accurate, and let people spend more time on the important stuff.