Testing Expert Offers Contrarian View to School Leaders

 John Tanner
                 John Tanner
by Hannah Zedaker

Ignoring a standardized test in K-12 education these days may seem counterproductive in the hope of receiving promising results, but that actually may be the best way to obtain them from students.

That, essentially, was the unusual message John Tanner delivered during his conference session, "Missing the Mark: Why Tests Aren’t Good for Instruction," on Friday afternoon. Tanner, a national consultant on testing in K-12 education, addressed how teaching to the test can skew the results that standardized tests were originally designed to show.

Until 1983, with the release of "A National at Risk," teaching to the test was seen as beneath professionals, silly and degrading, he said to a room full of superintendents. But after the widely disseminated report exposed serious faults in America’s education system, teaching to the test and setting performance standards based on those tests became the focus across the country.

"If you teach to your state test, you are preserving the very status quo that you as an educator are trying to change," Tanner said. "When we add standards to those tests, there is a massive misunderstanding because having an achievement level on a test is simply taking one score and making it more meaningful than all of the others."

Tanner, who runs an Austin-based firm called Test Sense, said the original purpose of standardized tests was to serve as statistical representations of how things are and where the student fits into those results. By using these standardized test questions as the basis for classroom curriculum, the results are seemingly worthless to educators because they don’t serve the purpose.

"If we use the test scores as designed, the flawed system has a chance to still work," he said. "The only way to be a measurement that is a reflection of the status quo is to teach something beyond the status quo -- otherwise the system will never work," Tanner said. "The choice is whether or not that happens."