This is a guest post by Anya Kamenetz, pictured above with her daughter. Kamenetz leads education coverage at NPR, and her new book is The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be.
Between kindergarten and 12th grade, students in the US on average take 113 standardized tests. There is a huge movement among parents to protect their kids from this onslaught of tests. And the teachers generally can’t stand teaching to the tests, or administering the tests. Which makes you wonder, why is the testing culture so entrenched in our schools—even among school reform leaders?
To understand our national obsession with tests, you should follow the money.
1. Companies that publish the tests make tons of money.
The test industry is a relatively static, highly concentrated, and not very competitive. CTB McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, and Pearson dominate the industry, and most of them have been in the business for decades. They make up what Robert Scott, former education commissioner of Texas, calls the “assessment and accountability regime…a military-industrial complex.”
In 2012 a report by the Brookings Institution found $669 million in direct annual spending on assessments in 45 states, or $27 per student. When you add administrative costs involved in tests, the total spent on testing rises to $1100 per student.
2. The test prep industry is lucrative.
But the money parents spend on preparing kids for tests dwarfs what schools are spending: $13.1 billion dollars this year (including test preparation, tutoring, and counseling). The global private tutoring market was estimated to pass a whopping $78.2 billion. That total includes programs that accept kids as young as 18 months old for pre-academic and after-school drilling and prepping.
The profit margins on No Child Left Behind tests are as low as 3%, but practice tests and workbooks sold to schools and prep outfits are more cheaply produced and claim as high as a 21% profit margin.
3. The people who determine how we reform education are the people who can fund education reform.
The top donors to public schools are the Gates family, the Broad family, and the Walton family. These are the billionaires that run public school reform. Bill and Melina Gates are obsessed with metrics-based social change, so they push very hard for testing.
(Disclosure, and for example: the Gates Foundation funded me to write an ebook in 2011; it funded the nonprofit education news service where I had a blog in 2013; it funds education coverage among other areas at NPR, where I now work.)
The personal interests and convictions of the Gates family drive their foundation’s agenda. And the Gate’s emphasis on data and metrics has permeated the entire philanthropic world.
In the international programs, they track metrics like how many wells dug and how many doses of malarial medication administered. In the domestic education program the metrics of choice have been test scores.
President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, recruited both his chief of staff and assistant deputy secretary from the Gates Foundation. The administration waived ethics rules so that these government staff members could consult freely with their former colleagues at the Gates Foundation.
Gates funded the initial development of the Common Core State Standards through the nonprofit Achieve Inc. Gates also supported charter schools, and in 2009 pledged $335 million to raise student achievement— measured through test scores—and promote teacher evaluation systems tied to student performance—measured through test scores.
4. The Common Core is what makes Ed Tech lucrative.
Before the Common Core, teaching was more fragmented, customized to the teacher and the students in a given school. Now everything is standardized, and Gates points out that standardized learning makes it easier for education startups to grow very big very fast:
“Because of the Common Core, developers no longer have to cater to dozens or even hundreds of varying standards,” he told the crowd. “Instead, they can focus on creating the best applications that align with the core.”
This idea about the power of standards is borrowed from the web. Online, interoperability standards allow developers to create pages and applications that are viewable and usable by anyone with any browser or mobile operating system.
“When you add textbooks, supplements, and assessments together, you’re talking about a $9 billion market that’s wide open for innovation,” Gates said.
5. School reform in the US attracts business people. Not educators.
Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp, cast an acquisitive eye on every public dollar spent on education when he announced the beginning of his education technology brand Amplify. At this point, Amplify produces hardware and software for the K-12 market, but Murdoch expects to expand his holdings.
“When it comes to K- 12 education,” he wrote, “we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”
While we subject our offspring to endless measurement, what is really being tested? It’s our values as parents—the kind of kids we want to raise and the kind of society we want to have. The testing obsession is damaging our children. But our society is locked into a testing arms race.
The parents who have the most time, energy, and resources are afraid to stop playing the testing game for fear their children will be left behind. The schools that serve the children with the fewest resources are even more determined to push them toward standardized test performances that can somehow make up for everything else they lack.
Some parents will decide not to subject their kids to any more tests. Some will find ways to make the testing experience better. Some, I hope, will be inspired to work toward a collective solution. Whatever you choose, as parents we can—we must—transform our families’ relationships to these tests.
How do we keep our own parental anxieties in check to build corresponding resilience and calm in our children?
How do we let our children be who they are while also motivating them to be the best they can be?
How do we build a world where every child is challenged to achieve her own personal best?
The answer is not multiple choice.