"The test obsession is making public schools, where nine out of ten American children are enrolled, into unhappy places." Anya Kamenetz, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing---But You Don't Have to BeAt the center, high stakes accountability and standardized testing policies are an attempt to justify public education. Politicians need quantification for the expenditure of tax dollars for education, no matter what the quality of the accountability system providing them with that justification. Various groups of people are happy with the massive increase in standardized test administration in spite of the fact that such testing has indeed began to suck the life out of our public schools.
Politicians want these accountability systems for a variety of reasons. Some are fine with public schools being unpleasant places because they do not want them to exist in the first place. They want evidence that public schools are performing poorly, and testing gives them the evidence. Other politicians blindly see these tests as the "objective" tools of salvation for public education. They have the faith that "objectivity" is possible, and that tests can fairly measure all that is worthwhile in schools. They are true believers in standardized testing.
Then there's the federal and state level policy makers who want all this standardized testing too. They see them as vital "measures" that tell them how schools, principals, teachers, and students are doing. Test scores give them purpose. "Let's get those test scores up!" becomes their focus, without which the existence of their job is questionable. They find the justification in what they're doing rooted in standardized testing.
Finally, there are administrators, from the national to the school level, who want these massive testing systems too. It gives them an "easy and simple" way to measure how their teachers are doing their jobs and how students are performing. No judgments are required: if a school, teacher, or student doesn't get the score, "dump'em." That makes leadership all tidy and neat, because there's no need for thinking, and there's no need for courage either. Test scores are used by school leaders as evidence of their own leadership as well; when scores go up, they feel validated. If scores drop, they can blame the teachers under their charge, the students, or lack of support from elsewhere. In addition, focusing on test scores is an excuse by many to ignore advocating for social justice and true actions taken to deal with poverty.
It's simply true, a lot of educators and politicians need test scores, otherwise, they don't have justification for their existence or evidence of their success. If there's nothing to count, then they can't show anyone "numbers" which, in their eyes, is the only convincing evidence of success in this thinking. But what if there are other ways to show success?
Maybe, it's time to rethink the high stakes accountability and testing paradigm. Maybe, if accountability is ultimate goal, there is a way to get that without this continued chasing of shadows. Perhaps, it we really put our heads together we could find a way to really improve schools and know it, rather than this multi-decade search for the measure and punish tactic that will work.