Reading the Test Scores

After years of education reform, students ought to be showing some improvement. So the conclusions of a new study examining classroom performance in individual states are certainly welcome, though they hardly suggest the reformers' job is done.

The Rand Corp. research finds that while national educational attainment still lags, intense reform efforts within many states are starting to pay off (see story, page 1). Most encouraging, researchers note that children who've often had the hardest time in school - poor, black, and Hispanic students - are in some instances showing remarkably improved test scores.

In Texas, for example, minority students have made strides on that state's test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. They've also tested higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam than students of similar backgrounds in other states, notably California.

If you sense a presidential campaign issue here, you're right. Gov. George W. Bush hopes to make "accountability" reforms and brightening test scores in Texas a national model.

But test scores and their analysis are complex. Mr. Bush's claims for Texas have already been roundly criticized. The state test is too easy, say critics, and teachers and schools have been given over to test-prep, giving kids a narrow, rote education.

Yet the scores are indisputably up, and the state-to-state comparisons, through the NAEP, stand.

Not surprisingly, states that have had a reform program in place longer, like Texas, show better results. But even states that have lagged offer some good news. California's latest statewide testing indicated significant gains in the elementary grades.

High schools were another story. Even in optimistic Texas, the dropout rate, particularly among minority teens, is still a problem. Nationally, about one-third of the students who do graduate from high school don't go on to college. Thus millions of young people rely on what they get in high school as preparation for work.

Let's not forget that test scores are only a partial window on educational progress. Making learning relevant and engaging to a broad range of students remains the central challenge.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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