One expert’s opinion on testing

iStock_000014316766XSmallAndrew R. Brulle, chair of the Department of Education, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, writes about recent educational policy and accountability mandates.

“While many positive outcomes have been realized as education has become more accountable, a series of recent education policy decisions have flown directly in the face of many years of research,” contends Brulle. He highlights areas where policy and research conflict and hopes to stimulate thinking among educators.

He states that his concern about political doubletalk, the misinformation, and the focus on catch phrases designed to ensure election rather than have a positive impact on schoolchildren’s lives led him to add his opinion to the educational debate. Brulle says that Wheaton’s teacher-preparation program strives to develop teachers who make positive changes in their students, their schools, and their communities.

The No Child Left Behind Act states that all children should be reading at a third-grade level after three years in school. This belies, Brulle contends, an understanding of a normal distribution. Large numbers of students’ test scores spread out in a bell-shaped curve around a mean such as grade level. By definition, sixty-seven percent of students naturally fall within plus or minus one standard deviation of the grade level, and 95 percent will fall within two standard deviations.

If every child could read at his “normal” grade level, it would reflect only one-half of the bell curve. This is like believing we live in Lake Wobegon, “where all children are above average.” Brulle finds it “very frustrating that such an ill-informed position can be made to sound so plausible.”

What are we testing?

Brulle cautions about the emphasis we currently place on high-stakes exams. He believes this focus on standardized tests has distorting effects on education. He asks how we’ve allowed well-meaning but misinformed policymakers to change the culture of learning in our schools.

He agrees with the title “No Child Left Behind” yet sees incongruity between this ideal and retention policies found in many school districts. No pass/no promotion may sound sensible, but, Brulle reminds us that 100 years of data demonstrates that retention has only negative effects on students–whether it is done early or later in a child’s academic career. There is no evidence that grade retention as an intervention for academic achievement improves a child’s academic achievement or success afterward.

What alternative certification

Brulle questions the validity of most alternative certification programs. Although he has seen data from a few programs that makes them appear effective, he stresses that there is more to teaching than just knowing the subject.

While good teachers know their subjects, they also understand child development, and can tailor instruction to individual needs. They use assessment results to evaluate the effects of their teaching, they manage all sorts of behavioral issues, they communicate clearly, and they have positive interactions with their students.

Activist educators

Brulle believes that educators must be involved in educating legislators and in providing data about the effectiveness of their school. Brulle also asserts, however, that educators can’t be afraid of rigorous evaluations or complain about their workloads. He believes students deserve the best, and he is willing to provide high-quality teacher-preparation programs to ensure high-quality education in our schools.


“What Can You Say When Research and Policy Collide?”, Phi Delta Kappan, February 2005, pp. 433-437.

Published in ERN April 2005 Volume 18 Number 4

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