Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Fundamental Principle: No Unnecessary Testing (NUT)

By Stephen Krashen | Original PDF

Summary: Do not invest 4.5 billion on new standards and tests. Instead, work on
improving the NAEP to get a picture of how our students are performing, and
continue to use teacher evaluation to evaluate individual student performance. We
should begin by cutting back testing, not adding testing.

No Unnecessary Testing (NUT) is the principle that school should include only those
tests and parts of tests that are necessary, that contribute to essential evaluation and
learning. Every minute testing and doing “test preparation” (activities to boost scores on
tests that do not involve genuine learning) is stolen from students’ lives, in addition to
costing money that we cannot afford these days.

If we accept the NUT principle, it leads to this question: Do we need yearly standardized
tests closely linked to the curriculum? Do they tell us more than teacher evaluation does?
This issue must be looked at scientifically. If, for example, standardized tests given in
every stage are shortened, given less frequently or abandoned, will student performance
be affected? Would NAEP scores be affected, or high school graduation rates, or life

My prediction is that teacher evaluation does a better job of evaluating students than
standardized testing: The repeated judgments of professionals who are with children
every day is more valid that a test created by distant strangers. Moreover, teacher
evaluations are “multiple measures,” are closely aligned to the curriculum, and cover a
variety of subjects.

There is evidence supporting this view for high school students: In a study published in
2007, UC Berkeley scholars Saul Geiser and Maria Veronica Saltelices found that adding
SAT scores to high school students grades in college prep courses did not provide much
more information than grades alone, which suggests that we may not need standardized
tests at all. More recently, Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson (2009) reached similar

For those who argue that we need national standardized tests in order to compare student
achievement over time and to compare subgroups of students, we already have an
instrument for this, the NAEP.

The NAEP is administered to small groups of children who each take a portion of the test
every few years. Results are extrapolated to estimate how the larger groups would score.
No test prep is done, as the tests are zero stakes: There are no (or should be no)
consequences for low or high scores. Our efforts should be to improve the NAEP, not
start all over again, and go through years of fine-tuning with new instruments.

Gradually improving the NAEP will also solve the "standards" problem, as the NAEP is
adjusted to reflect competencies experts in education consider to be important.

If we are interested in a general picture of how children are doing, this is the way to do it.
If we are interested in finding out about a patient’s health, we only need to look at a small
sample of their blood, not all of it.

My predictions, however, need to be put to the empirical test. A conservative path is to
start to cut back on standardized tests, both in length and frequency, and determine if this
has any negative consequences.

A radical path is to throw everything we have out, without any evidence that it is
inadequate, and waste $4.5 billion on new standards and new tests, tests for all subjects
and to be given to every child every year.

The conservative path is the only rational option, when funds are so scarce, and it is an
essential exercise of our responsibility to students. It is also the solution to those who are
calling for a longer school year and a longer school day: less time testing and doing testprep
means more time for instruction and learning.

Bowen, W., Chingos, M., and McPherson, M. 2009. Crossing the Finish Line:
Completing College at America's Universities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Geiser, S. and Santelices, M.V., 2007. Validity of high-school grades in predicting
student success beyond the freshman year: High-school record vs. standardized tests as
indicators of four-year college outcomes. Research and Occasional Papers Series: CSHE
6.07, University of California, Berkeley.


  1. I'm always a sucker for a good acronym and NUT certainly is a good one. However, I'm not sure that the NUT approach is likely to be fruitful. It hinges on what people deem is necessary or not and I think that those who argue for standards-based assessment genuinely believe that they are necessary. I'm sure they will readily offer up as much evidence for their position as you do against it.

    Another approach would be to offer up an alternative to traditional testing approaches. The notion of a "test" as a list of questions to be answered in a single sit-down session is deeply ingrained in our thinking. Essentially, it is the idea that a test is for someone other than the learner. But there's no inherent reason to think that this is the only way to test learners' capabilities. How about if we turn this notion on its head? Can we perhaps devise "learner-centered tests" similar to our notion of "learner-centered education" where the focus of the test would be oriented toward how learners complete the test rather than the precise answers that they supply to given questions?