Standardized tests -- gauge of whether US schools are improving

Remember your teacher telling you to be sure to bring a No. 2 pencil, because you were going to take a standardized test; that it was necessary to fill in the entire circle corresponding to the multiple-choice answer you chose; that any stray mark on the page would mean the grading machine would automatically mark your answer as wrong?

For the rest of the 1980s not only American teachers, but a wary public -- dubious about anything short of concrete evidence that schools and students are improving -- will be relying on scores from standardized tests of students, and sometimes of teachers, for proof of educational progress.

In the aftermath of numerous national education studies (nine since last spring), the outpouring of concern about American schools is at a new peak. Though the exact outcome of many of the proposed reforms in uncertain, one thing is clear: Standardized tests will play an increasingly important role in the monitoring of educational performance.

In the next few years standardized tests will receive attention from three directions:

* The courts, Congress, and state legislatures will continue to scrutinize such tests to make sure civil rights aren't being violated by them.

"Testing is now a regulated industry," Donald N. Bersoff, a nationally recognized lawyer in test use and the law, told an Educational Testing Service conference here in late October on the uses and misuses of tests. Courts will continue to be active in areas where tests used by public schools are "claimed to be tools of discrimination or deny full realization of the rights of racial and ethnic minorities and the handicapped," said Dr. Bersoff, who also holds a doctorate in educational testing.

Nearly 40 states now use some kind of competency examination. About 25 states require students to pass such a test before they can graduate.

* A major revision of the "Joint Technical Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing" will be undertaken by the three national organizations most widely respected for setting test standards -- the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council for Measurement in Education. These standards are the ones most often referred to in court cases or legislative enactments.

The revisions are prompted by increased use of tests in selecting candidates for jobs or admission to educational institutions, for licensing and certifying in the professions, for assignment to special-education classes, for determining competency for high school graduation requirements, for detecting racial or ethnic bias in testing, and evaluating persons who are labeled as handicapped.

* Public demand for standardized tests is expected to increase. Observers realize there is no more pervasive barometer of the slippage in educational quality than the decade-long decline in scores of students taking the College Board entrance exam, the SATs. Policymakers see widespread use of standardized tests as an early-warning system that will indicate the success or failure of educational changes wrought by the current reform movement.

When the proposed reforms begin to be carried out in classrooms around the country, "the public will need to know what we are doing, how succesful we are," says Anthony J. Alvarado, chancellor of the New York City public schools.

"Standardized tests meet the demands of fundamental accountability," agrees John T. Casteen III, Virginia's secretary of education. However controversial or unpopular standardized tests are, they are recognized as indispensable, he says.

In the last decade, society has moved from a "naive acceptance" of test results to an "overly critical and skeptical" attitude toward them, and now back to a "cautious" acceptance of them again, says Mr. Casteen. He is confident that public opinion on the matter has matured to a more realistic appraisal of just what to expect from such tests. We know that "tests no longer measure what people are; they measure what [people] do," he says.

One of the unexpected consequences of the increased testing that grew out of the back-to-the-basics movement in education during the mid-1970s, Mr. Casteen says, was a focus on teacher competency rather than on curriculum change. He cites a recent shift by the National Education Association (NEA) as one indication of how seriously standardized tests are being taken now.

The nation's largest teacher union "clarified" its position by acknowledging the need for objective measurement for entry-level teachers, which the association had long opposed. The NEA now is more closely aligned with the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teacher union, which has long endorsed the idea of testing beginning teachers.

Not everyone is totally optimistic about the new testing emphasis, however. "Overreliance on standardized testing may be dangerous to the health of education, if a testing mentality is extended [too far] into school," warns Dianne Ravitch, professor of history and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University. While not denying the value of standardized tests in obtaining an objective measurement. Dr. Ravitch emphasizes that they "measure only a narrow spectrum of abilities, and they cannot measure many important and valuable ways of thinking."

She also cites the little-known fact that fewer than 10 percent of all institutions of higher education are highly selective today. A recent survey by the College Board, the sponsor of the SAT test, found that most colleges and universites now accept all prospective students who apply and that they require that students meet only minimal standards. The overwhelming majority of institutions use the tests for placement, not for exclusion from educational opportunity.

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