Students and teachers face more tests -- but what do results mean?

There is an old army adage: ``If it moves salute it, if it stands still, paint it!'' Today that can mean for some reformers, ``If it moves, test it.'' -- Gregory Anrig, president, Educational Testing Service Americans are enamored with a number produced by a test. It's the educational equivalent of box scores in baseball.

And after two years of national soul-searching about the quality of instruction in the nation's schools, one thing is clear: As classroom doors swing open this September, students and teachers will be taking more tests than ever before. For example:

The annual expenditure for tests in elementary and secondary schools is more than $100 million. There are more than 100 large and small publishers of education tests in the United States, according to Educational Testing Service (ETS), the largest and best known of them.

Forty states require minimum competency examinations for all students.

Nineteen states now require students to pass a test as a condition for graduation from high school; five more will impose such tests by 1987. Thirty-two states have testing requirements for entrance into the teaching profession.

In the 1984-85 school year, 2.5 million students took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing program (ACT) for college admissions purposes. More than 200,000 students take advanced placement (AP) examinations to earn college credit in high school, an increase of 17 percent from last year alone.

A new Florida testing program could become a trend among public universities. Sophomores at state public colleges and universities in that state must pass all four portions of a college-level academic skills test before they can earn an associate of arts degree or continue as juniors. The test is 41/2 hours long and consists of an essay question and multiple-choice questions in mathematics, reading, and writing.

Largely responsible for the drive for more testing in recent years is a widespread public disenchantment with the quality of public schooling, says Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary in the federal Education Department. With the advent of competency testing in the late '70s, a major shift occurred in the way in which the public wanted the tests used. They became a series of bench marks linking assessment of academic performance to school performance, further fundin g, and teaching competence, he says.

Too often, however, the mass media trumpet a rise or decline in tests scores, often without adequately describing the reasons and implications, Harold Howe II, a senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, writes in the Kappan magazine.

There is a negative side in the trend to increased testing that can't be ignored, says Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest labor union. It is not so much an opposition to testing, but an opposition to a misuse of testing that concerns teachers, Ms. Futrell says. If you don't trust teachers, you pass laws and procedures, and that may tend to discourage better candidates from becoming teachers, she says.

At its annual convention last month, the NEA endorsed competency testing for new teachers and rigorous academic standards for students, backed by regular testing. But hand in hand with an emphasis on testing must go remediation programs for students who score poorly, insists Futrell.

``Excellence and equity demand it,'' she says.

Educators say most parents would prefer to hear that a child got an 88 on a test, rather than getting word that the student got a B-plus, or mastered a behavioral objective.

``Few people are going to argue about tests as a quality-control measure,'' says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers' union. Mr. Shanker calls for far more student testing -- ``every three weeks at least, not just final exams at the end of the year,'' he says. Tests should be seen as the key to a comprehensive assessment package. The desired mix includes essays, multiple-choice questions, classroom participation, and wo rk projects, he says -- not just narrow, objective tests.

What can tests tell us?

Testing experts interviewed say tests serve as systematic screening devices geared to short- and long-range academic performance. For a student, they serve as pathways to the next grade, hurdles to a diploma, or the entryway to the college of one's choice. But tests also help the public assess the value, integrity, and viability of individual schools and school systems.

Educators are quick to point out that past declines in test scores can largely be explained by several nonschool factors. For instance, the group taking the SAT from 1962 to 1980 was the first generation of young people raised in front of a television set. Also during that period, more children from single-parent families (and thus more likely to have had their schooling complicated by stress at home) showed up at the schools' doorstep. In addition, many students, whether from single-parent or two-paren t homes, had mothers who worked outside the home. And abuse of sex, alcohol, and drugs among the young was on the rise. These factors contributed to a decline in scores.

Educators also emphasize that teachers teach children, not objectives. Testing helps determine if objectives are being reached, but it is the objectives themselves that must be carefully developed.

``Evaluation is not an easy thing to do unless you have a lot of agreement'' as to what it is you want to test, says Orlando Toro, director of the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) for the College Board. ``Tests, as evaluations, both describe and judge. We must be careful how we describe a school, a student -- how we judge a school, a student.''

For Mr. Toro, testing must be seen as a positive item, as something you use to determine the value of what is being offered to students.

If students do poorly when tested, it should make us want to ``look at what we have given them to work with, what we have placed in students' hands,'' he says.

Some states have tied increased school aid to the regular reporting of test results. Florida has earmarked $820,000, South Carolina $669,000, and Utah $700,500 as incentives to get schools to adopt programs that use the College Board's Advanced Placement tests.

Policymakers like to use tests to help guide a curriculum in a certain direction. If done carefully and with sound instruction, the practice is a good one to have, says Gov. Thomas H. Kean (R) of New Jersey. The governor, a leading proponent of education reform, says he doesn't think states will go overboard with testing. Parents, business leaders, and legislators want information they can understand. Tests can provide them this information, he says.

``We've got to be ready to go out there and explain very loudly to the public what we're doing and why, and the fact that these are standards which are important if a grade and a test score are going to mean something. And these are standards which any good school ought to be able to get their kids up to if they're doing the job,'' the governor says.

``I worry about these kinds of measurements, though, because they can be misinterpreted by the public,'' he says. His state just introduced a new standardized test. ``We know that the failure rate is going to be higher, at least for the initial years. What does that say to the public? Does the public say that we've got a worse situation than we had? Is that their interpretation? If it is, of course it's a wrong interpretation, but it's one we've got to be aware of that might occur,'' he says.

ETS president Gregory Anrig is the first to admit the SAT is not a good tool for measuring school quality. The SAT is designed primarily to predict the performance of students during their first year of college. And this only in combination with other factors, such as grade-point average and types of courses taken while in high school, he says.

Anrig says he's excited about developments in testing theory and computer technology that move beyond the traditional determination of admissions and placement. These will also provide instruction and guidance for students and teachers, he predicts.

It will be possible for a youngster to sit down at a computer and, ``in any academic area, be able to answer some questions, [and then] on the basis of those answers, have the . . . program determine what the next question will be,'' he says.

As a result, the student and teacher will no longer just get a test score that says, ``Here's what the situation is.'' Rather, both will get precise advice saying, ``Here's what you can do about'' improving learning.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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