HOW important and telling, and even educational, are the standardized tests students take in school? Do they narrowly dictate what is taught? Should they be deemphasized? These have been longstanding questions in American education, and they are being raised again in earnest - by two of the top figures in US schooling. Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers and Gregory Anrig of the Educational Testing Service both argue that with pressure mounting for results in school reform, tests have come to drive school curriculum in a way that distorts learning and causes students to see their achievements in abstract and unfulfilling terms.
Mr. Anrig wants tests redesigned. Mr. Shanker wants them administered only every five years. Both ideas deserve consideration. Tests hardly tell the whole story about an individual's ability and intelligence. At the same time, anti-test sentiment is often used as a self-deluding smoke screen for poor performance and lack of effort.
Tests sometimes do reflect student ability. They also measure undiscovered ability in students who may be bored with school.
However, ``teaching to the test'' in class can be unhealthy. It sends a message that education is a commercial exchange - rather than an exploration into new worlds of history, science, and language. Tests don't measure such important qualities as decency, bravery, character, and wonder.
Ralph Waldo Emerson might have been writing about a modern testing mentality in a 1839 journal entry: ``Now so bad are we that the world is stripped of love and terror. Here came the other night an Aurora [Borealis] so wonderful, a curtain of red and blue and silver glory that in any other age or nation it would have moved the awe and wonder of men ... and we all saw it with cold, arithmetical eyes, we know how many colors shone, how many degrees it extended, how many hours it lasted, and of this heavenly flower we beheld nothing more ....''