As Jonah Goldberg frequently reminds us, it’s routine for now-unpopular notions or policies to be branded “conservative.” With Gallup reporting last fall that 68 percent of parents think standardized testing is not helpful to students, it’s no great surprise to find testing being labeled a conservative idea. What’s bizarre is that this is going on at the exact same time that conservatives in Washington are getting pilloried by the smart set for trying to correct the many excesses of the No Child Left Behind Act, and those in the states for pushing back on the Common Core tests.
In the most recent example, National Public Radio’s Anya Kamenetz has penned a new book, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have to Be, that suggests the defenders of test mania are a bunch of conservatives. Reviewed enthusiastically in last Sunday’s New York Times, Kamenetz simply defaults into redefining staunch proponents of testing as “conservative.” For instance, she characterizes the Education Trust, an unflinchingly liberal champion of race-conscious equity, as a “conservative-funded advocacy group in DC.” She suggests that the Heritage Foundation is a key advocate for testing; in truth, Heritage spends most of its time advocating for expansive school choice and criticizing No Child Left Behind.
This is a perplexing state of affairs. First off, the testing mania that has taken hold in America’s schools was very much a bipartisan creation. Back in 2001, President Bush called for regularly testing every student in grades three through eight in reading and math — to police school quality and ensure that schools were “leaving no child behind.” Bush found ready agreement on that point from Ted Kennedy and other liberals, who hoped this kind of test-driven accountability would press schools to focus on those same poor and minority children. The impulse was admirable enough. No Child Left Behind passed the U.S. House with nearly 400 votes and the U.S. Senate with nearly 90. For good or ill, it was a thoroughly bipartisan exercise.
In fact, since that time, it is liberal reformers such as the Education Trust who have most enthusiastically embraced the legacy of No Child Left Behind. Conservative enthusiasm for testing has been tempered by an appreciation for school choice and the recognition that an overreliance on judging schools based on reading and math tests will stifle the array of school options and instructional choices. Liberal reformers are less plagued by such qualms, as they have little use for private-school choice and tend to be eager to shutter all charter schools with unimpressive test scores. Thus, liberal support for school choice tends to involve little or no brake on their faith in testing.
More to the point, it is reform-minded liberals who have turbo-charged the testing binge. In 2009, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top pushed states to sign on to the yet-to-be-developed Common Core tests and to promise they’d start judging teachers based on test scores. Since that time, the administration’s dubious practice of granting states “waivers” from No Child Left Behind if they agree to pay fealty to administration priorities when it comes to things such as teacher testing has continued to herd states down this path. The teacher-evaluation systems, in particular, require a spate of new tests for the three-quarters of teachers not captured by those NCLB reading and math tests. Along the way, a sensible commitment to transparency and accountability turned into something else.
It’s also been groups such as the Education Trust, Center for American Progress, and Democrats for Education Reform that have been most vocal in leading the charge to boil the whole of America’s educational agenda down to the simple mantra of “closing achievement gaps.” A monomaniacal emphasis on closing “gaps” in reading and math scores between low-income children and their more affluent peers, and among children of different ethnicities, has led schools to make moving those test scores their primary aim. The result has been a raft of pre-testing, diagnostic testing, and test preparation. All this has been primarily the product of well-intentioned liberal reformers.
As with so many well-intended liberal designs, however, the results have disappointed. Parents are angry, educators are frustrated, and politicians are trying to do something about it. That’s fine. It’s how democratic systems course-correct. And conservatives deserve their share of the blame for their role in letting things get out of hand. But they shouldn’t let anyone suggest that the excesses of Obama-era school testing are somehow a failure of “conservatism.”
— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include The No Child Left Behind Primer.