I am on the fence about the value of standardized testing to improve education--believing that choice and competition are much more efficient mechanisms to enforce quality. However, if tax money is involved then there must be standardized tests to assess value for cost.
I am always skeptical about claims of “teaching to the test” and how that erodes the quality of a child's education. First off, I question what was going on in the classroom before the standardized test. What were the children doing in the classroom for 6-7 hours that would preclude scoring well on basic reading and math exams?
Homeschoolers are taught using very flexible curriculums yet often score high on most standardized tests—because reading and math skills are obviously part of any good curriculum. My children go to private school and have not yet participated in California’s standardized tests. However, I would expect that my son would score well in reading and math based on the private school curriculum—even though he has not explicitly been “taught to the test.”
Ed Hirsch is right—there is just a certain amount of “core” reading and math skills that one would expect any adequate curriculum to cover. Whether it’s a Montessori method or the popular “Abeka” Christian curriculum, one would expect that any second grader could read certain passages at grade/age level or complete certain math items on a test. So what is it that public school students are doing all day that is flexible yet yields low scores on standardized tests? (Whether every student can reach a certain baseline on any standardized test is a different debate and people who promote standardized testing often seem to have missed basic tenets from their college-level statistic course.)
Kim Swygert has an excellent anecdote from a Korean student taking the writing portion of the SAT II that illustrates how studying material for a valid test enriches general learning. Kim notes “Brian feels the writing test helped his real-world writing skills, which is the added benefit of any good test, and is the reason that "teaching to the test" is indistinguishable from teaching when the test is valid.”