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How to Use School Tests

December 10, 1999



Much is being said about states backtracking from plans to make high school graduation and grade-to-grade promotion dependent on standardized test scores. Does this break faith with meaningful school reform?

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No. It keeps faith with reform by helping keep its various elements in balance. Testing is one of those elements because it provides a means of assessment and accountability. But when it's given undue weight, other key ingredients can be lost sight of.

Case in point: the cheating scandal rocking New York City public schools. Some teachers and principals there, all too aware their futures depended on good test scores, decided to give the kids a hand with crib notes. What they lost sight of was intregrity and the long-term interest of the children they're responsible for educating.

That's an extreme example. But the increasingly central role of standardized tests has become a lightning rod for various kinds of controversy. Some say the tests discriminate against low-income and minority kids. Others say that testing distorts teaching. Teachers in Chicago, for example, get step-by-step study plans to help their students pass state-mandated tests. That kind of learning by recipe reduces other kind of learning.

In Massachusetts, recent tests revealed that a massive proportion of students had test scores so low that they would be denied a diploma, Standards for passing have since been lowered - temporarily - until recent reforms in curriculum catch up.

The lesson from all this is pretty simple. Standardized tests are useful tools for identifying academic weaknesses - and, hopefully, spurring a reallocation of resources. Until schools are thoroughly reformed, with better teachers, smaller classes, and other changes, then state test results should not be the sole basis for such critical decisions as who advances or graduates. State officials should also consider a student's other abilities.

The quest for an objective means of assessing educational achievement is in society's interest but such testing is still not a perfect science.

Citizens should have a core body of knowledge to be functionally literate. But learning, and the uses of it, remain very subjective and wonderfully individual.

Statewide test results, for now, are best used to improve schools - such as firing teachers who don't measure up - but not to hold back students.

The most amazing learning can happen even in a minimally outfitted classroom in a rundown building. It just takes one fired-up intellect igniting others.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society