Revamp Tests to Help, Not Hurt, Study Says


TESTS given to students and workers in the United States should be changed to accommodate shifting demographics, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy. The report calls for restructuring testing from preschool through employment in response to ``a shrinking entry-level workforce increasingly composed of linguistic, racial, and ethnic minorities.'' These groups tend to perform poorly under current testing practices.

Entitled ``From Gatekeeper to Gateway: Transforming Testing in America,'' the report says: ``As the global economy becomes more competitive and interdependent, we will more than ever need the talents of all our people.''

As the United States moves toward a more service-oriented economy, the country can no longer rely on a largely unskilled labor force, says the report.

In 1987, the commission began a three-year study of the role of testing in allocating opportunities. The group is an interdisciplinary body including experts in such areas as education, business, and labor, supported by the Ford Foundation.

``Testing has primarily been used to select people for limited opportunities,'' says George F. Madaus, an education teacher at Boston College and executive director of the study. ``We're going to have many more opportunities than we're going to have people in the coming decades.''

In order to promote individual talent, the report urges that equal importance be placed on investment in human resources as is currently given to other forms of capital. It recommends that accounting practices include investment in human resources along with nonhuman capital.

But not all experts agree. William Poole, a professor of economics at Brown University in Providence, R.I., views such a proposal as unnecessary. ``If we continue to have economic growth ...,'' he says, ``then there will be lots of opportunities. Private companies have a tremendous incentive to invest in their work force, and they do so where they think there will be some returns.''

The report concludes that ``alternative forms of assessment must be developed and more critically judged and used, so that testing and assessment open gates of opportunity rather than close them off.'' The role of testing in our society must be transformed from a ``gatekeeper to a gateway of opportunity'' for all citizens.

While pointing to the overuse of multiple-choice testing as a cause for concern, the report focuses on efforts to get ``direct evidence of actual performance.'' It points to the problem of ``misclassification'' - ruling out capable people for certain opportunities on the basis of one test score. The report recommends that institutions ``avoid classifying solely on the basis of one imperfect instrument.''

The problem of imprecise testing practices is not a new concern. However, as more employers and educators have come to rely on tests to allocate opportunities, the need for critique has grown.

``A single test is too often asked to play many different roles,'' states the report. Many schools now hold school administrators and teachers accountable for student test scores.

In another recommendation, the commission urges that some form of public scrutiny of testing be instituted - either in the form of a federal test bureau or an independent board. This body would oversee the quality and use of tests. Current monitoring boards do not have the power to enforce their recommendations.

Gene Maeroff, senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Princeton, N.J., disregards such a plan. ``It's an ideal that's hopelessly impractical,'' he says.

Professor Madaus, executive director of the study, explains the importance of the report. ``This is not a test-bashing report. We see a very important role for testing, but it's a transformed role.''

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