National Tests Will Hurt, Not Help, Educational Improvement
by Laura Barrett and Monty Neill
President Clinton has made school reform the centerpiece of his second term agenda. National tests, the president says, are the key that will unlock the door to improved learning and equity. Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that Clinton's testing plan will undermine, not enhance, the real reforms so many U.S. schools need.
Clinton's proposal. Clinton's current plan is to create a reading test for fourth graders and a math test for eighth graders based on the frameworks used to develop the exams for the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). They are to be 80 percent multiple choice, and administered and scored for $5 per child.
Although these exams will be voluntary for the states, Clinton is hoping to "embarrass" all states into administering them starting in 1999.
The administration has pointed to the mid-level performance of U.S. students in international comparisons to make a case for national tests to boost education standards. Few would quarrel with the desire to improve student learning, but it does not logically follow that creating yet another test will accomplish that laudable goal.
Excellence. If excellence means students learn to use their minds well across a range of subject areas, Clinton's tests will not tell us whether standards of excellence are being attained. Tests that are primarily composed of multiple-choice questions do a poor job of measuring higher order thinking skills.
Noted educator Linda Darling-Hammond has described standardized tests as "superficial and passive," explaining: "We don't ask if students can synthesize information, solve problems, or think independently. We measure what they can recognize." Clinton's $5 tests will be no exception.
If educators view these exams as important, they will feel compelled to spend more time teaching to them and less time improving higher order thinking skills which are not as easily measured. Many will resort to "drill and kill" techniques since rote memorization can raise scores in the short term. Unfortunately, those techniques do little to enhance understanding of the underlying concepts. They also result in a duller curriculum. Instead of learning to like education, kids learn to dislike school. Consequently, for many students more testing actually reduces real achievement.
Equity. Clinton also claims that national tests will improve educational equity. Education Secretary Richard Riley put it this way in a recent newspaper column: "[These tests] will help eliminate inequity in education because there will be one set of expectations and standards for all students, rich and poor."
Just asserting that more tests will enhance equity will not make it so. There is a mountain of literature about the many ways standardized exams have been used to reinforce rather than eliminate inequity. For example, tests have been used to retain children in grade who would have benefitted from the challenge of advancing, to track children who speak non-standard English into "slow learner" classes where low expectations feed their downward academic slide, and to provide affluent children who have high scores with an enriched curriculum, piling advantages upon advantages.
Although Clinton maintains his new national tests will not be used for high stakes decisions
concerning individual students, in the past he has said he wants tests not only for high school
graduation, but also for grade promotion. There is a real risk these exams will be used for those
purposes in the future and will continue to thwart equity.
Even if that alarming result does not come to pass, Clinton's testing plan specifically fails in three areas of equity.
First, this plan diverts energy and resources away from concrete improvements. The needs of schools and students in low-income areas are immense, from decent buildings, to good texts, to better teacher training. Addressing these shortcomings will require serious long-term investments, but Clinton is choosing the cheap and easy way out: measuring learning in the guise of improving it.
Second, experience with the "basic skills" tests required by many states shows that students in poorer school districts, where test scores are generally the lowest, are the most likely to be subjected to a heavy emphasis on rote memorization as teachers strive to raise test scores quickly. By relying on cheap multiple-choice tests, Clinton's plan will continue to encourage dysfunctional educational approaches for students who most need powerful and engaging instruction.
Third, teaching to a national test limits the ability of educators to shape their teaching methods and content to reflect the linguistic, racial and cultural diversity of their communities. National tests recognize and reward only one form of "excellence." Instead of promoting high standards, they will merely promote standardization, to the exclusion of many.
Backdoor curriculum. Fear of a standardized, homogenized curriculum has raised concerns among many conservatives as well as progressive education reformers. The president says these will be national tests, not "federal government" tests, but that distinction escapes many who are worried about the potential loss of local control over public education.
These tests are being developed, promoted and -- at least initially -- financed by the federal government. If these tests are considered important, then they will effectively dictate what and how students are taught in the areas tested.
Furthermore, Clinton has said he supports more extensive national testing, so reading and math may be only the first two in a full battery of tests. This would effectively impose a national curriculum and would undermine some of the creative education reform efforts currently underway in states and school districts across the country.
Real needs. American students are already the most tested children in the world. Most students are tested at least once a year with a battery of standardized exams, and many are tested several times. If the goal is to promote equity and excellence, yet another multiple-choice test won't help; richer, deeper classroom-based assessments will.
Performance assessments of this kind are described in the Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems developed by the National Forum on Assessment and signed by dozens of leading education and civil rights organizations. The Principles call for assessments that are an integral part of the learning process, and that are:
* grounded in solid knowledge of how people learn;
* able to assess a full range of what is important for students to learn;
* flexible enough to meet the needs of a diverse student body; and,
* able to provide students with the opportunity to actively produce work and demonstrate their learning.
Unfortunately, Clinton's testing plan fails on all these counts. Opposing his plan does not mean
opposing higher standards and improved learning, it means striking a blow on behalf of real
Laura Barrett is executive director and Monty Neill is associate director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139; email to FairTest#064;aol.com. The Principles are available from FairTest.
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