New educational standards–do harder tests mean better outcomes?

The Oklahoma State Board of Education recently adopted higher testing standards for elementary and middle school students. According to the Tulsa World, the higher standards result from recommendations of a committee of educators and business representatives. This effort responded to charges from business and conservative groups (and some left-leaning observers) that we set up test standards so most students would be considered proficient under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

New standards initially will result in  a drop in the proportion of students who meet basic and proficient standards in math and reading. If the theory behind high test standards is correct, students eventually will learn more and score higher on the more difficult tests. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett argues:

There’s no doubt the bar has been significantly raised on what Oklahoma students are expected to know in math and reading in Grades 3-8. However, the Board and I believe this action was necessary to ensure Oklahoma students are competitive nationally and internationally and that our schools continue to move forward.

Higher standards are one education reform that people from across the political spectrum often support. It’s important to remember, though, that higher test standards and better outcomes are not necessarily the same thing. Dana Goldstein recently pointed out the difference in The American Prospect. Her column “Testing Testing” chronicles the growing movement for a national testing standard, cautioning that agreement on test standards can be oversold. Among Goldstein’s concerns is that the national testing movement is partly propelled by companies that make a living selling standardized tests. Another is that high standards can be created and attained through means other than testing.

Goldstein points out that Finland, with the highest-rated education system in the world, has high and specific standards for what students must be able to do, but no mandatory testing. She fears America is moving toward the exact opposite.

It would be a shame if national education reform further cemented a system in which passing standardized tests is the goal of learning.

Education is fundamental in creating real opportunity for all Oklahomans. Whether in Oklahoma or nationwide, taxpayers and leaders should demand more from the educational system.  But we should never forget the “more” we want is more learning.  More tests with higher standards  are only important if they truly promote more learning.


Paul Shinn

Paul Shinn served as Budget and Tax Senior Policy Analyst with OK Policy from May 2019 until December 2021. Before joining OK Policy, Shinn held budget and finance positions for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Department of Human Services, the cities of Oklahoma City and Del City and several local governments in his native Oregon. He also taught political science and public administration at the University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, and California State University Stanislaus. While with the Government Finance Officers Association, Paul worked on consulting and research projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and several state agencies and local governments. He also served as policy analyst for CAP Tulsa. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Oklahoma and degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland College Park. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Carmelita.

2 thoughts on “New educational standards–do harder tests mean better outcomes?

  1. Oklahoma has followed the national pattern where test scores following the rules of NCLB have soared, but scores on the more reliable NAEP teast have remained flat, and even declined in high school. In other words, our educators and students are working harder, probably teaching and learning more information and skills such as decoding. But reading comprehension and numeracy have not improved, and elementary gains have not translated into improved high school performance.

    Although Oklahoma has one of the greatest “bubbles” or increases in State test scores that have not been reflected in better tests, we may be the only state to tell the truth and take honest action.

    Secretary Garrett was acting on a brilliant study by Robert Balfanz’s, “Keeping Middle Grades Students on the Path to Graduate,” Average achievement gains for entire schools provide false impressions, Balfanz explains. “Within each school, students either significantly closed their achievement gaps or fell further behind.” When students attended class at a rate of 95%, had excellent behavior, and put forth “greater-than-average effort in class, “a remarkable 77% closed their achievement gaps.” On the other hand, sixth graders who failed math or English, who had an attendance rate of 80% or less, or had a poor behavior grade, had only a 10 to 20% chance of graduating on time. Worse, even “mild but sustained misbehavior” is a significant risk factor.

    These conclusions supplement the definitive study, “The Turnaround Challenge,” of why efforts to turnaround secondary schools almost always fail. It explained why instruction-driven efforts that are successful in relatively lower poverty and selective schools are inherently incapable of turning around the neighborhood schools that produce the majority of America’s dropouts. “Currently, too much extra help is offered through after-school programs and is disconnected from students’ day-to-day classroom needs. … If students get extra help in fractions, but their test on Friday covers integers, they are not getting the support they need.” In other words, “best practices” such as after-school safety nets that work for schools where “tens of students” need interventions are overwhelmed in schools where 200 or more students need additional counseling and tutoring.

    These and other studies show that “customarily,” middle schools are designed with the assumption that 15% or so of students need extra help. But in the middle schools which serve the majority of students destined to drop out, ½ of students need extra support. “In these schools, there are simply not enough skilled adults … The result is triage, burnout, high mobility among administrators, teachers and staff members. This, in turn, makes the situation worst.”

    Similarly, “many high schools have been able to provide additional supports … if their students’ skill and knowledge levels equal to those of average seventh or eight graders. … Yet in high poverty environments, nonselective high schools often educate primarily students who enter with the skill levels of typical fifth or sixth graders.” (I would argue that in Oklahoma City our most successful neighborhood high schools, Northwest Classen and John Marshall, [in addition to taking disciplinary actions at a higher rate] have a higher percentage of incoming students with skills of at least seventh grade. At Centennial, and presumably Douglass and Capital Hill, the vast majority of students enter with the skills of 5th and 6th graders.)

    Secretary Garrett, and others, have also placed Oklahoma in the lead of the most promising reform – high quality pre-school. Gordon MacInnes, the Court Master in New Jersey Abbott case has just written a wonderful book, In Plain Sight. Due to the Abbott school finance case, New Jersey’s poorest districts invested an additional $3,000 per year per student. Though averaging more than $15,000 per student, districts like Camden, Newark, and Trenton have seen a “relative decline” in achievement.

    But systems like Union City, Elizabeth, and Orange, have seen “virtually unprecedented” improvements over entire districts, as opposed to gains in scattered schools. They succeeded by narrowing the “kindergarten gap.” Their “sensible” strategy is to start early and spend whatever time is necessary to bring young students up to grade level in reading and writing.

    MacInnes recounts the decades-long battle to create high-quality pre-school that is “more than high-cost day care,” and that has transformative power. Again, real success will require efforts that are comparable to Whole School Reforms and Whole System Reforms that have dominated education since NCLB. It has become increasing settled, however, that those worthy efforts will yield little or nothing until we teach children to “learn to read (for comprehension) and then read to learn,” as well as “teach students how to be students.”

    We must also remember Secratary Garrett’s call for “the gift of time.” She drew upon

    The Center for American Progress’s research that showed how we could expand the school day by 30% at a cost of $720 per pupil or less. This involves much more than increasing instructional time. Garrett’s and the CAP’s proposals would require a collaborative redesign of the school day. And it would require the key ingredient that has been missing for much of the last seven years – an honest conversation among all stakeholders.

    The lessons we in OKC should draw from national research is the same as the message of MAPS:

    “We must bring community services into the schools, and we must take students out into the community, and we must do so at a time of fiscal crisis. Social workers, mental health professionals, probation officers, and medical providers all must be housed somewhere, and often the schools are the most cost-effective location. Many social providers would jump at the chance to intervene early in the lives of young people before physical and social problems metastasize. For instance the question is not whether we can afford to teach proper nutrition, but whether society can afford not to. A comprehensive set of social and educational services will not plan itself, however. The missing ingredient is communication among all stakeholders.”

  2. The new NAEP scores were released this morning. These are the more reliable scores. The news is better than it was two years ago. We’ve shown increases in 4th grade and 8th grade Math and we’ve decreased the achievement gap. Our best improvement was 8th grade Math where our achievement gap decreased by 7%. Our 4th grade Reading scores are still below 1992, but we improved since 2005.

    I’d argue that the key data is the 8th grade Reading scores, because that is the skill that is absolutely essential to success in high school, and we have good and bad news.

    Oklahoma was one of only three states to decrease the achievement gap in that all-important category.

    But here’s the problem. Our 8th grade Reading scores are way below the pre-NCLB results of 1998. White 8th grade Reading scores have dropped by 2 points, while Black Reading scores dropped by 10 points since 1998.

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