National Tests Will Hurt, Not Help, Educational Improvement

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, we fear that Clinton's testing plan will undermine, not enhance, the real reforms so many U.S. schools need.The administration's plan is to create a reading test for fourth graders and a math test for eighth graders, both of which will be 80 percent multiple-choice. So far the response has been lukewarm, with only six states and 15 school districts committing to administer the tests as of this writing.Few would quarrel with the president's desire to improve student learning, but the tepid reaction reflects a deep skepticism among educators about whether subjecting students to yet another test will accomplish that laudable goal.If improved learning means that students use their minds well across a range of subject areas, Clinton's tests will not tell us whether those standards have been achieved. Tests that are largely composed of multiple-choice items do a poor job of measuring whether students can synthesize information, solve problems, or think independently. Instead, they place far too high a premium on a student's ability to identify the correct facts from a series of alternatives.If educators view these exams as important many will feel compelled to devote significant classroom time to test preparation. Some will resort to pretest "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. For many students, then, taking more tests of the wrong kind actually reduces, rather than improves, their opportunity to learn.Clinton also claims that national tests will improve educational equity, but has failed to demonstrate how. We already know that students in poorly funded inner city schools generally score lower on standardized tests than do their more affluent suburban peers. More testing will not make that reality disappear. Putting a lot of energy and resources into this testing plan is already diverting attention away from grappling with concrete reforms.Indeed, more testing could make the fairness problems worse. There is a mountain of literature about the many ways standardized exams have been used to reinforce inequity. For example, tests have been used to retain children in grade who would have benefitted from the challenge of advancing and to track children who speak non-standard English into "slow learner" classes, where low expectations feed their downward academic slide.These equity concerns are very real. For example, groups representing Hispanic children are upset about the current proposal to administer the fourth grade reading test in English only because it means that many recent immigrants will labeled as poor readers even if they comprehend the written word in their native languages.There are also concerns that establishing national tests will undermine local control over public education. While the president says these will be national tests, not "federal government" tests, that distinction is lost on many conservatives and progressives alike. The lukewarm response of so many state policymakers may well stem from their fear that these tests could undermine some of the creative education reform efforts currently underway.The administration has failed to make a compelling case that we need the data that these proposed tests will yield. American students are already the most tested children in the world, taking more than 100 million standardized tests each year. We already have a very good idea of how students, schools and states stack up against one another based on these measures. If the goal is to promote equity and excellence, yet another multiple-choice test won't help; richer, deeper classroom-based assessments that are aligned with carefully developed standards 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 more than 80 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 proposal does not mean opposing higher standards and improved learning, it means striking a blow on behalf of real reform.Laura Barrett is executive director and Monty Neill is associate director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139. (FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based publication; 617-864-4810.)

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