op-ed piece


by Lyle V. Jones

Chapel Hill, NC -- President Clinton's plan to support national education standards is laudatory. His mistake was to propose national tests. National standards for mathematics have improved the teaching of math and have elevated student achievement. Standards for other subjects could yield similar benefits.

However, national tests would invite disaster. Cheating would become widespread. Teachers would teach to the test. Low-scoring students --and their teachers-- would be stigmatized, often unfairly. A state that adopted national tests would likely decline continued participation in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which, since 1969, has provided our only reliable knowledge about what the nation's children know and can do. This would jeopardize NAEP.

When, in 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics developed grade-by-grade content standards for mathematics, most states reacted favorably by patterning curricular guidelines to reflect those standards. Consequently, math classes now are less repetitive from one year to the next and students acquire richer skills as they progress through years of schooling.

The effects are measurable and striking. According to NAEP, and against the odds dictated by demographic shifts in student populations, average mathematics achievement levels at ages 9, 13, and 17 in 1996 were the highest in 25 years. For the states in NAEP in both 1992 and 1996, average math achievement levels were higher in 1996 for 33 of 37 states at grade 4 and for 35 of 37 states at grade 8. And results from the 1996 Third International Mathematics and Science Study show average math achievement levels for U.S. 4th and 8th graders to be above international averages, substantially so at grade 4. As President Clinton remarked in September, "Our schools are offering broader and deeper curricula now, our students are taking more challenging courses now, our schools, by and large, are much better run now."

The National Research Council at the National Academy of Sciences has developed content standards for science. Other national groups are preparing standards for other subjects. These efforts are intended not to create a national curriculum, but to guide states and school districts to initiate reforms comparable to those for math. They deserve support.

Regrettably, President Clinton coupled plans to develop national education standards with a proposal for a national reading test for all pupils in grade 4 and a math test for all in grade 8. Each would be a 90-minute paper-and-pencil test to be given in the spring of 1999. To date, 7 states and 15 school districts have signed on. The U. S. Senate endorsed the proposal, but the House voted to prohibit its funding.

The tests would include multiple-choice and short-answer items. Tests would be tried out in 1998, then administered and scored by local school personnel in 1999. Asked whether the same tests would be given nationwide, Secretary of Education Richard Riley replied, "Absolutely yes."

The opportunity for cheating is great. Inevitably, the questions and answers would be widely circulated before the test was given in a specific school. Local school personnel could influence results by coaching students in advance, providing extra time in test sessions, offering hints about answers, or simply by being lenient in scoring for the children in their jurisdiction.

Of further concern is the threat posed to creative classroom teaching and learning. Evidence from other countries is not reassuring.

In a study of science classes in British Columbia, a Province that requires a 12th-grade test, the question, "Will it be on the test?" was found to dominate behaviors of teachers and students. Twelfth-grade teachers lectured and their students memorized. In 10th-grade classes, with no such test imposed, students engaged more in laboratory projects and interactive learning.

In England and Wales, a national curriculum and national testing were mandated by the Education Reform Act of 1988. Initial plans called for each student to solve sets of standard problems and to be scored by the teacher. Those plans were abandoned because teachers needed nearly 10 hours to evaluate each child. When performance evaluations were replaced by paper-and-pencil examinations, teachers reported a narrowed curriculum, to focus on content likely to be tested. Among other side effects, ability grouping was re-instituted for classroom instruction, and teachers reported an increased disregard of children with educational handicaps. In 1993, despite governmental threats to withhold salaries, teachers successfully boycotted the national tests.

No convincing justification has been set forth for a U.S. national test. For more than 25 years, NAEP has shown its value as a monitor of achievement change over time in a range of subjects. For each subject, NAEP encompasses a broad array of content, for it is not just a single test. Part of the problem with a national test is its narrower content. Yet, if adopted, a national test certainly would threaten the continuation of NAEP, and the nation might lose its only indicator of long-term achievement trends.

Several panels of distinguished advisors have published reports recommending both national standards and student assessments in support of educational reform. Each proposed multiple assessments, not a single test, and each emphasized that responsibility for assessment should remain with states and local districts. That sound advice ought to be heeded by the public, the President and Congress.

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