> Op-ed piece

Who is this national test for?

Lawrence Rudner

One of the most divisive issues concerning the federal budget is the voluntary national tests. Senate Republicans are promising to filibuster any bill that includes funding for the tests. Senate Democrats are promising to filibuster any compromise bill that does not include the national tests. President Clinton says he will veto any bill that does not include funding for the tests.

While the Republican and Democrat leaders couch their arguments in terms of federal role and political philosophy, both sides appear to have forgotten the original premise of the proposed new testing program. Perhaps a compromise can be reached by sticking to the ideas originally espoused in the State of the Union address.

The State of the Union address talked about providing quality, useful, credible information to parents and teachers. The President argued that this type of information would provide a new level of accountability for the schools.

While some forty-six states have formal testing programs, the results are not always credible. Five years ago, Maryland, for example, used a 15-year-old test to tell parents that the students in that state were above average. They were above average compared to the nation 20 years ago, not compared to the nation today. The practice was widespread and the national average was above average. We were living in Lake Woebegone, parents didn't then and still don't know what to believe. The tests envisioned by the President, on the other hand, would clearly be of top quality and serve the most important audiences -- parents and teachers

The testing program described in the State of the Union address rapidly mutated from a tool for teachers and parents into a tool for district and state level decision making. The federal architects sought the support of states and large districts by arguing that the test could be used to compare districts, schools, and even classrooms. The comparisons would make these into high-stakes exams and push schools to do a better job.

Pushing schools is really another name for changing curriculums. Seeing through the rhetoric, many conservatives and libertarians vehemently fought the idea of the federal government controlling curriculum. The compromise offered by the White House, and accepted by the Senate, was to have an independent board composed of political appointees oversee the effort and be the group pushing schools and curriculum. This, however, only satisfied some. It really doesn't matter who is directing the national test. The question remains as to whether local curriculum should be pushed by a central source.

The curriculum issue aside, as a parent, I would like to know how well my children are doing compared to other students in their grade across the country. Although I think I already know how well my children will do, that information will help me push my children and provide me with good information for parent-teacher discussions. It would help make teachers further accountable to parents for what goes on in our classrooms.

The current plan to use the tests to compare teachers, schools, and districts will not help me as a parent and will not help my child's teacher. That data is predictable and of little interest. Teachers, however, will be pressured to narrow their curriculum to emphasize the content of the test -- at the cost of other skills and attitudes. I would rather my child leave fourth grade as an average reader who loves to learn rather than as an exceptional reader who hates school. Schools and districts will be encouraged to artificially make themselves look good. They will exempt students with limited English proficiency, exempt students with learning disabilities, and schedule field trips for lesser able students in order to raise average test scores. This is happening right now; the proposed voluntary national tests won't change these practices.

These tests can be good for parents and teachers and good for education, but not if schools, districts, and states are permitted to make the comparisons that make this idea so appealing to the House Democrats. Prohibit school, district and state averages -- neuter the tests in terms pushing curriculum -- and you might have a tool to empower parents and help them focus their child's education. While a compromise from today's stance, this is what was originally proposed to the American people.

The writer is the Director of the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation (http://ericae2.educ.cua.edu) The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any sponsoring or affiliated agency.

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