Standardized tests

Among the many ailments afflicting education in the United States is the assessment conundrum: parents and taxpayers alike demand the means to measure effectiveness across schools, but the drawbacks to standardized tests are becoming universally acknowledged.

In an attempt to make schools more accountable, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act enforced standardized tests across the nation. The lesson learned from that experiment was that these tests often do little more than pressure educators to tailor classroom learning to the exams, frequently at the expense of better instruction.

As AEI’s Rick Hess and others have noted, the potential of data is often overestimated, and quality teaching requires time and freedom to develop lesson plans and activities, and to give attention to the particular needs of students. Instruction should be dynamic, personalized and contextually robust—all of which is difficult when faced with a checklist of high-priority facts every student must memorize.

In other words, while teachers want to impart understanding to their students, they are paid to impart data. The nature of standardized testing trivializes learning and weighs teachers down with restrictions and mandates.

Despite these problems, standardized tests continue to be used as the primary tool for measuring and rewarding quality education. While there are endless ideas for how to improve them, a better idea might be to eliminate them entirely. In their place we should use the same indicator that is used to measure value in every other market: the price tag.

The concept of price is a severely underappreciated one in our culture. We tend to think of it as the amount someone demands in exchange for something, or—if we take a more cynical view—the level at which those who can’t afford something are separated from those who can.

But prices actually say a lot about the expected value derived from a product, and help determine whether resources should be spent in one way or another. Test scores alone cannot identify which schools are best at developing strong character and social skills. They say nothing about the facilities, programs or prestige. Prices, on the other hand, capture all of this and anything else that people look for in an exceptional education, but which cannot be conveniently bubbled in on a Scantron.

Because public schools dominate American education, and because these schools have no visible sticker price for consumers, we have grown accustomed to thinking of education as different from other goods—not confined to the rules of the discerning marketplace. Many of us like it that way; after all, education is supposed to be the great leveler, through which people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds can discover equal opportunity.

The problem, of course, is that this “opportunity” is becoming ever more worthless, because any concept of fairness that ignores basic market principles is bound to fail. The pattern is a familiar one in many developed countries. Attempts to make the condition of people more equal never succeed by bringing the bottom up; they succeed only in restricting the liberties that enable differences. As Winston Churchill once said “the inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.”

Thus, as Dr. Benjamin Carson noted in his National Prayer Breakfast remarks, the state of public education has steadily depreciated. While few entirely ignore this crisis, most of us are content to travel the familiar path, labeling as extremist any talk of subjecting education to market forces.

In truth, we would do well to recognize this is already happening—but in the wrong way. The existing price signal tells parents to send their children to school A, when they would have excelled at school B; it sends resources and talent to the places where they will be wasted or underutilized.

Standardized tests are a poor and expensive substitute for measuring effectiveness in an industry that is afraid of embracing market principles. The cost of this is greater administrative expenses, more bureaucracy, heavier burdens on teachers, and a paradoxically declining quality of real education. At some point, we must recognize the physics at play and learn to harness them rather than ignore them.