A tester's paradise
As the governor of Texas chases a promotion, running on a better-education platform, he's been mentioning a recent Rand Corp. report which found significant progress in the Lone Star State. The standardized tests of the NAEP identified Texas and Indiana as "high performers" in terms of improved achievement, and specifically in the achievement of racial minorities and poor students.
The Rand report, written by David Grissmer, compared progress of demographically matched students in various states. Rather than simply comparing average progress in the states, it matched the progress of poor blacks and Hispanics in each state -- and found Texas in front and California in the rear.
But is the report an endorsement of the stringent program of standardized testing in Texas? Not exactly: The Rand report attributed the progress elsewhere. Two-thirds of the difference between Texas and California was due to "lower pupil-teacher ratios in lower grades, higher participation in public pre-kindergarten programs and a higher percentage of teachers who are satisfied with the resources they are provided for teaching."
Imagine: results, in other words, correlated with school spending! Furthermore, while the progress may boost the Governor's candidacy, the educational changes behind the results were initiated by his predecessors.
The Rand report raises the perennial issue of the poor performance of minority and poor kids on standardized tests. Mike Antonucci, head of the Education Intelligence Agency, a private, contract research firm, has just completed a report on the issue. "The usual argument is that [tests] compare the demographics of students, not the students [or teaching quality] themselves," he says. Even accepting that white, middle-class students do better than minorities, he says that states that educate minorities poorly are also educating whites poorly, and thus standardized tests become a good barometer for school success for both groups. Unlike reports published in the scientific literature, this report did not receive peer review (see "Measure for Measure" in the bibliography).
voice: Whining about tests
´ Do tests foster racial equity -- or inequity? Theoretically, tests enable the public to pinpoint losing schools, then either improve or shun them, and since minority and poor kids tend to get worse schooling, they should benefit if tests help their parents to choose better schools. But Linda McNeil, a professor of education at Rice University in Houston, says the system can backfire. In Texas, she says, the extreme pressure to continually improve on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) forces low-scoring schools to dwell on test-preparation at the expense of traditional teaching. "The more this happens in poor and minority schools, while the middle class is reading biography, history, the more you're creating an even bigger gap" between classes and races. "I look on it as an equity issue," she says (see "The Harmful ImpactÍ" in the bibliography).
It ain't necessarily so, responds Debbie Graves Ratliffe, director of communications and public information at the Texas Information Agency, since the TAAS blends state and local control. "I think the state has said loudly and clearly that the state will set the goal, but will allow local school districts to figure out how to meet the goal."
´ Do tests cause dumbing-down as the need to improve scores forces teachers to reduce curriculum to digestible factoids that can easily be tested? Yes, says David Gilman, a professor of education at Indiana State University and former classroom teacher who says he favored high-stakes testing -- until he saw the results. "If you've gone to a resource room, where they are trying to pump up scores, it's not a pretty thing to see." The major defect, he says, is the reliance on "drill and kill [his dismissive term for 'drill and skill' classes] rather than trying to teach good stuff to everybody."
Do tests rankle teachers? Sure sounds that way. A second-grade teacher from Tucson, for example, complained, "Why are we forcing younger and younger kids to take standardized tests? Children progress at different levels, especially during the early years. It doesn't make sense." (See "A Fun Trip" in the bibliography).
Some observers add that testing represents a return to a top-down, industrial management style. The current Texas testing scheme, says McNeil, places the school at the "bottom of a chain of command, and testing is a signal to people at the top whether their ideas are working."
Results don't always measure ability: Good students fail tests, and students who test well may get poor grades, notes McNeil.
Teachers atomize knowledge to prepare students for the familiar multiple choice tests. Tests "tend to break down learning into small quantities, to measure thing that don't have much practical use," says Gilman. In life, he adds, "You have to put a lot of things together to get something practical." While tests may use computation to measure math ability, the true measure of achievement should be problem solving, he says, not individual facts.
The high-stakes outcome of some tests leads to cheating, and not just by students. The high stakes associated with some tests have caused teachers and administrators to pull to the hanky-panky. An elementary-school principal resigned in Potomac, Md., amidst charges that he'd coached children on state tests. "As the school year ends, an alarming number of teachers and principals face charges of fixing the numbers on high-stakes tests" Newsweek wrote in June (see "When Teachers Are Cheaters" in the bibliography).
High school graduation tests produce widespread failure, and many who fail are scarred for life by the lack of a diploma. Indeed, the specter of grading millions of lives on one evaluation is causing a backlash among edu-crats. Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that "Only on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' can people rise to the top by rote memorization and answers to multiple-choice questions." Houston was supporting a bill by Sen. Paul Wellstone (a dyslexic who nevertheless earned a Ph.D. at age 24) that "would allow students to receive diplomas or advance to another grade even if they couldn't pass state-mandated exit testsÍ" according to "Discord Grows" (see bibliography).
Tests are fallible. The group running the National Assessment of Educational Progress recently jettisoned the results from the 1999 long-term writing test, calling them unreliable (see "Nationwide Writing" in the bibliography)
When only reading, writing and mathematics are tested, other subjects are downgraded,. Especially in poor, minority schools, McNeil says, "Principals are under pressure to raise scores by any means necessary," resulting in "dumbed-down" instruction designed to satisfy multiple-choice tests. "They're setting aside science, history, art, field trips to prep for the math and grammar tests."
Overall, these complaints amount to "Teaching to the test" -- devoting time to test preparation at the expense of the overall curriculum. Could that be an advantage? "The term 'teaching to the test' is used, but when you dig in, you find that they are teaching to the curriculum, and that's what we want them to do," says Graves Ratliffe of Texas. Indeed, "teaching to the test" echoes the major claim of testing advocates: that intelligently designed tests are indeed a way to ensure that kids are learning what we want them to learn.
Brian Stecher, an education analyst at the Rand Corp., responds that tests can distort state curriculum rather than support it. "The official stated-adopted standards include other subjects" that are not tested, he says. "Suddenly one set of signals says certain things are important, while the other says they are not." The result is that tested subjects take priority, no matter what the state standards may say.
Whatever the experts say, standardized tests seem popular with the public.
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