Published: May 4, 2015

National Education Policy Center (NEPC) Director and Professor Kevin Welner debated Patricia Levesque, former deputy chief of staff for education under Gov. Jeb Bush in Sunday's New York Times.

Read below or read the article in the New York Times.


  • Patricia_levesque-thumbstandard


    Patricia Levesque, former deputy chief of staff for education under Gov. Jeb Bush, is the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of education for all students.


The Testing Regime in U.S. Schools Isn’t Working



It is much easier to correctly identify a problem than to come up with a workable solution.

When No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002, the United States did indeed have a problem — one that was identified, at least partially, by President George W. Bush’s condemnation of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Since the nation’s inception, many children of color and those living in poor communities have been denied fair opportunities to learn and to succeed. N.C.L.B. was supposed to change that by demanding that by 2014, all students would be “proficient” in math and reading.

The evidence shows testing has done more harm than good, with scores being pursued at the expense of deeper, broader learning.

No Child Left Behind failed. Thirteen years on, an entire generation of students has been schooled under test-based accountability policies, and we have clear evidence that this approach was not a smart way to enhance educational opportunities in less advantaged communities. In fact, the evidence showsit has done more harm than good, with test scores being pursued at the expense of deeper, broader learning.

Simple logic tells us that if schools shift substantial time and energy toward reading and math, students should learn substantially more in those two subjects. But even that hasn’t happened. At best, some research suggests a small upward trend in reading and math scores subsequent to the N.C.L.B. reforms; other research suggests no uptick at all.

These results fall far short of the promises that N.C.L.B.’s advocates made to the American people. After 13 years of pouring time, energy and money into an obsessive focus on testing in reading and math, we have little or no improvement to show for it.

The failure of test-based accountability systems should not, however, divert the nation from addressing the problem of low-income children of color being denied fair opportunities to learn and succeed. But if equity is to prevail we must set aside test-based demands, and focus instead on learning opportunities. Our conception of accountability must be expanded to include those charged with providing students and their teachers with the resources and support they need.

The simple truth is that children learn when they have opportunities to learn. When those opportunities are rich, engaging and supported, students learn much more than when those opportunities are narrow, constrained and focused on dry, unengaging test preparation. It is long past time to confront the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in a meaningful way.

Testing Is Necessary to Expand Opportunity for All



There is a growing opportunity gap between those with knowledge and those without.

The Information Age is demanding, and the ability to succeed in it is determined early. Children who cannot read or who lack basic math skills in the early grades already have fallen woefully behind, and their chances of catching up diminish every year.

We must approach education as an urgent endeavor on which lives depend.

We do this by determining what children need to know, not what we think they can learn based on their circumstances. We then measure their progress and hold adults in the system accountable for doing their job.

Massachusetts did that when it adopted the Education Reform Act of 1993. It now is the nation’s top academic performer.

A child whose progress is not monitored, whose results don’t matter, is a child likely to fall through the cracks.

Florida adopted the A-Plus Plan slate of reforms in 1999, including the nation’s most rigorous accountability provisions. Ever since, the state has become a national leader in academic progress, with disadvantaged children showing the most gains, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (N.A.E.P.).

Tennessee, Indiana and Washington, D.C. showed the biggest overall reading and math gains on the 2013 N.A.E.P. All are reform-minded with strong accountability policies.

Kevin, you focus on the shortcomings of No Child Left Behind. But state policies, not federal requirements, drive student learning. 

Successful policies include school choice for parents, accountability for every child, early-grade literacy, elimination of archaic teacher tenure policies and adoption of college-and-career ready standards measured with quality assessments.

Kevin, those on your side, including teachers unions, fight vigorously to block such reforms and then argue accountability is not working. They don’t want it to work. Instead they give us repackaged arguments for more money backed by vague assurances of results. Just don’t hold them to it.

That is why many civil rights groups support annual testing and accountability. They know a child whose progress is not monitored, whose results don’t matter, is a child likely to fall through the cracks.

"Deeper, broader learning" is something we all support. But a child who cannot read a science book cannot learn biology. A child who cannot write cannot create poetry. A child who cannot work with fractions cannot pass algebra. With no foundation in the basics, there will be no deeper, broader learning.

Accountability is hard. But it is necessary if we are to expand opportunity to all children.

Parents Are Opting-Out of Testing for a Reason



There is no debate here about one thing: The U.S. must confront an urgent equity crisis, with millions of American children facing daunting opportunity gaps.

These gaps can only be closed if we focus on learning opportunities, through policies like high-quality preschool and social services. Testing children can be helpful, but tests don’t teach, and knowing about a problem is only a small step toward addressing that problem.

This machine runs on our children’s test scores, and the growing opt-out movement is powerful because it starves the machine of its fuel.

Closing those gaps is possible, but not if we cut corners and costs, simply hoping that the free market or test-based pressures will drive substantial school improvement. Florida, which you laud as a model, does provide early reading support and other evidence-based policies. But Florida has also chased quick fixes that lack research support. Former Gov. Jeb Bush started your organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, to advocate for what he called the “Florida Formula” for student success, but Florida’s eighth graders still languish in mediocrity in both math and reading.

Massachusetts, one of the nation’s leaders in funding fairness, is indeed doing well, but there is little basis for attributing this success to test-based accountability.

In fact, none of these correlations between policies and N.A.E.P. scores support causal inferences. It’s the high-quality research I pointed to at the outset that tells us that test-based accountability policies have failed.

Yet, Patricia, you argue that we should dig ourselves deeper into this hole. “Accountability is hard,” you say. It’s bitter but necessary medicine. We must test children and then “hold adults in the system accountable for doing their job.” But the burdens created by our test-based accountability systems are borne by ordinary children, parents and teachers, not by the powerful people who impose those systems. Is it any wonder, then, that parents have begun to opt out of testing, withdrawing their consent?

The test-based accountability machinery has now reached overwhelming size and dominance. This machine runs on our children’s test scores, and the growing opt-out movement is powerful because it starves the machine of its fuel. Without a continuous supply of new scores, the machine grinds to a halt. If and when that happens, we as a society will have a real choice: Do we decide that we’re serious and finally ready to close opportunity gaps?

Tests Let Us Know Kids Aren’t Falling Through the Cracks



Public education has grown from the one-room schoolhouse to one of society’s most complex functions.

Consider the challenges.

We know the only way to ensure all students are learning is to measure their knowledge.

We have a minority-majority student population, the most diverse in our history. There are high poverty rates in many schools and growing numbers of English-language learners. Academic standards have not reflected the requirements of the 21st century economy, leaving too many students unprepared for life after graduation.

There is no single solution to all this. But there are common sense strategies that when combined take the form of a solution.

• We know students will face the same expectations after graduation. And so we must hold them to the same expectations in the classroom.

• We know the only way to ensure all students are learning is to measure their knowledge. And so we must continue administering annual assessments.

• We know parental involvement improves schools. And so the performance of schools must be conveyed to parents in simple, transparent terms.

• We know teachers drive student success. And so we must recruit and retain effective classroom leaders, while giving them the resources to do their jobs.

• We know children who struggle to read in fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. And so we must focus on K-3 literacy.

• We know quality pre-K programs give children the foundation to succeed in school. And so we must increase access to these programs, particularly for our most disadvantaged students.

• We know parents are the best decision makers for children. And so we must empower them to make decisions about where their children attend school.

• We know that state and federal budgets, already strapped, are coming under pressure from the retirement of Baby Boomers. And so we must prioritize reforms that are efficient and take advantage of new technology.

Kevin, you focus on tests as an overriding negative in all this when in fact they complement both our agendas, which are not mutually exclusive. Tests let us know kids aren’t falling through the cracks, adults are doing their jobs and reforms are working. Otherwise we spend and guess.

Lastly, Florida’s success is a threat to your agenda, which is why you downplay the remarkable turnaround of its public education system.

But please show me any other state that has as large a student population — with nearly 60 percent of children in the free and reduced lunch program — that has progressed more in the last 15 years.

There isn’t one.

Empirical Evidence to Support Testing Doesn’t Exist



Patricia, your list of “common sense” contentions is helpful because it allows us to ask if these assumptions hold up.

Several imperatives on your list are supported by solid research evidence, but those don’t really concern testing. They are: recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers and principals “while giving them the resources to do their jobs,” a strong focus on K-3 literacy, maintaining high expectations for all students, and sustained investment in high-quality pre-K programs.

Testing creates perverse incentives to teach to the test, rather than on broader, deeper, more engaging learning.

Unfortunately, your key assumptions about testing are little more than assertions that lack solid empirical support: 

• “We know the only way to ensure all students are learning is to measure their knowledge. And so we must continue administering annual assessments.”

• “Tests let us know kids aren’t falling through the cracks, adults are doing their jobs and reforms are working.”

To the extent that this advocates for an evaluative feedback loop that alerts policymakers and others to areas of need, these are sensible statements. But that is a far cry from advocating that every student be tested every year to generate fuel for test-based accountability machinery. Indeed, the evaluative-feedback-loop purpose of testing could be accomplished using sampling approaches, including the existing N.A.E.P. assessments that you and I have both cited.

I fear, however, that your embrace of “annual assessments” is really just another way of saying that we need to continue excessive testing. It is simply false to assert that such testing is “the only way to ensure all students are learning.” Nations like Finland that lead the world in student academic performance do not rely on testing. Here in the U.S., as we have seen over the past couple decades, testing has not and cannot ensure that all students are learning.

The current testing regime is the opposite of commonsensical. It does not provide timely feedback to teachers about how to improve their instruction. Instead, it creates perverse incentives to teach to the test, rather than on broader, deeper, more engaging learning. We are thus left with an ineffectual program that distorts and undermines policies and practices that ensure a high-quality, stimulating learning experience for all children.

With regard to school choice and to Florida, a separate debate on those topics would be welcome. My “agenda” is for success, whether in Florida or through school choice. But merely wishing for success is inadequate, so my agenda is also committed to evidence-based policymaking.

Every Child Must Be Measured, Every Child Must Count



Kevin, you say that my support for annual student testing lacks “solid empirical support.’’ So I guess we’ll call what happened in Florida simply an amazing coincidence.

In the 1990s, between 60 and 70 percent of minority and poor fourth graders in Florida couldn’t read at even a basic level according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That put their success in later grades very much in jeopardy. The state already had begun testing students. But our 1999 education reforms attached consequences to the test results, including the grading of schools based on student performance.

Since then, our African-American fourth graders have made more improvementthan their peers in any other state. So have our students with learning disabilities. Our low-income fourth graders and our Hispanic students top the nation on N.A.E.P. reading results.

I agree that there is too much testing, but much of it is progress monitoring by school districts. We need fewer tests and better tests.

Kevin, you would like to attribute Florida’s gains to anything but accountability and testing. But those of us who lived through the process know better. We saw school districts respond quickly to improve long-ignored and long-failing schools in poor communities. They replaced ineffective leaders and teachers and brought in new resources.

Rapid improvement followed. We saw schools that had been written off for years as failures celebrate A grades. Florida adopted a slate of reforms, but it was accountability that gave them teeth and increased their effectiveness.

Kevin, you talk about replacing annual testing with other approaches, like the N.A.E.P., but that system only tests a sample of students. Unfortunately, if a third grader in Miami is falling behind in reading, a sampling of Florida students is not going to catch that. His parents are not going to receive objective information that would alert them to it. Nor will his parents know how well his school and teachers are performing.

This is why every child must be measured and every child must count. Those who agree include major civil rights groups 
that represent poor children, African-American children, Hispanic children and children with learning disabilities. They know all too well how easily these kids can fall through the cracks.

That said, I agree that there is too much testing, much of it progress monitoring by school districts. We need fewer tests and better tests. Florida just passed legislation moving in this direction.

In the future I hope we can move to a more flexible testing system where students can demonstrate mastery of academic material at any point during the school year, allowing them to progress through courses at their own pace.

As we so often say, reform is never final.

Thank you for this conversation, Kevin, and I hope readers have found it enlightening.

A Basic Disagreement About the Uses of Tests



Thank you, Patricia. I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to debate the Florida reforms themselves. Those wishing for an alternative perspective may wish to read the thoughts of Sherman Dorn, formerly of the University of South Florida. But in a nutshell, part of our disagreement concerns the dangers of cherry picking a subject area (reading), a grade level (fourth) and subgroups of the population. The other part arises from the dangers of making causal inferences from mere correlations, when many factors are likely at play – some beneficial and some detrimental. This is the “ice cream causes murder” problem.

In the end, I think we’re left with a basic disagreement that’s certainly about testing but even more about the uses of those tests. Test-based accountability systems are certainly a powerful tool. But we’ve learned that their power can leave a great deal of damage in their wake.


Join Opinion on Facebook and follow updates on

Related Faculty: Kevin Welner