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Students and teachers agree: standardized tests are a misery. But are they a necessary misery?

A long time ago, when I was just a newbie student teacher, I was required to do SAT test prep with a group of sophomore boys who had trouble just reading the simple short stories I gave them. The school board felt that SAT scores were too low, however, and so we all had to drill students in analogies and arcane vocabulary. One of the boys got so frustrated that he wadded up his paper and threw it in my bag on his way out the door.

I really can’t blame him. A lot of the test prep I did for SATs, mastery tests, CAPT, and more felt like a waste of time better spent doing other things.

And now educators have finally had enough.

Opponents of a new standardized test from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which was created to help support the national curriculum framework known as Common Core, recently rallied at the state capitol. This group of teachers, parents, and students say that SBAC takes forever to administer, requires the use of computers districts often don’t have, stresses out the students, and isn’t even statistically valid. Test validity, put simply, is empirical evidence that the test actually assesses what it claims to assess. This seems like a problem.

But supporters say that SBAC and other standardized tests provide them with important data that lets them assess whether students are learning. “Education is a science,” wrote Jeffrey Villar of the Connecticut Council for Education reform in a recent CT Mirror editorial. “We have research on data-driven practices that absolutely will make a difference for kids.”

I had to laugh at that. Education is a science the way economics is a science: just barely.

But, since data’s what’s important to the current bunch of reformers, let’s look at it. The scientific literature doesn’t give clear answers. A 2012 study, for example, suggests that the high-stakes policies of No Child Left Behind had only a modest impact on achievement, if any, and that students actually improved faster in math before NCLB was instituted. A 2010 study says that testing can be a good way to hold schools accountable, though the tests themselves are often badly flawed. A 1999 study found that standardized tests really aren’t a great way to measure educational quality at all.

So that means this new SBAC test is probably a complete waste of time, right?

Again, it’s not that simple. Assessing whether students are learning what they’re supposed to be learning is really, really hard. Tests like SBAC and CAPT have all kinds of flaws but are one of the only ways of getting standard data about how students are doing — and SBAC’s data can be compared from state to state. Other methods of assessment, like portfolios, are pricey and often just as unreliable as testing. So there’s no clear answer here, either.

Even the fighting over testing is murky — it’s turned into a proxy for other battles over big government, charter schools, corporate education reform, cultural change, and much more.

When teachers rally against SBAC, they’re also airing frustrations about a whole host of other things like the loss of control teachers feel over their own classrooms, society-wide disrespect for educators, and constant ham-fisted government efforts to “fix” public schools.

When reformers lobby for the tests, on the other hand, they’re trying to respond to what they see as a crisis in education. American students have been lagging behind our international peers for generations, the achievement gap remains as heartbreakingly wide as ever, and students are showing up at our colleges and universities without the skills they need to succeed.

It’s a mess, and there’s no easy solution for any of it. Our education system is plagued with the problems of our society at large, and we can’t test our way out of that.

I still believe that smaller classes, individual help for needy students, and after-school support programs would do wonders, if only we’d actually spend the money. But that idea is nowhere to be found in these discussions.

For now, the tests aren’t going anywhere. However, policy makers would be wise to actually listen to feedback from teachers on specific tests, and try to reduce the sheer number of tests students have to endure.

As for this latest test, the teachers unions want the state to examine SBAC to figure out if it’s really as useful an assessment as reformers claim. That’s a good start.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.