Reform Efforts Hurt by Tests

Study finds standardized exams constrain teaching and learning

STANDARDIZED tests are undermining efforts to improve math and science instruction, according to a recent study funded by the National Science Foundation.

The three-year, $1-million study is the first effort to measure whether teachers say that standardized tests influence their classroom instruction, says George Madaus, the study's principal investigator and director of the Boston College Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy.

More than 2,200 fourth-through-12th-grade math and science teachers were interviewed for the study, titled "The Influence of Testing and Teaching Math and Science in Grades 4-12."

Urban school districts with a high population of minority students were found to be most negatively affected by teachers' tendency to "teach to the test."

In urban classrooms with many minority students, about 60 percent of math teachers and 63 percent of science teachers said they either teach topics known to be on the test or begin test preparation more than a month before standardized exams are given to students

"These practices were reported significantly less often in classrooms with few minority students," the report states.

Standardized tests are administered once or twice a year in most states and are often used to judge the performance of students and their schools.

ALTHOUGH curriculum reformers are calling for more emphasis on problem-solving skills and hands-on activities for math and science students, this study found little emphasis on such "higher-order thinking skills" in the most widely used standardized tests.

Instead, the tests require such low-level skills as rote memorization and recall, basic computation, and use of formulas.

"These tests are stressing adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying or using data from simple word problems," says Maryellen Harmon, a Boston College researcher. "None of that calls for high-order thinking that requires that they go in-depth into the concept, that they use math skills in nonconventional contexts, or pull together concepts from geometry and algebra."

Only 3 percent of the questions on standardized math tests measured "high-level conceptual knowledge," the study found. And only 5 percent of the math questions tested problem-solving and reasoning skills.

Science tests also emphasize low-level skills but to a lesser extent than math tests, the study found.

"If we are going to realize the hopes of educational reformers in math and science, we are going to have to reform these materials and bring them up to date," Mr. Madaus says.

But Peter Jovanovich, president of the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company calls the study "disingenious, if not completely unfair." In the past year, new tests have been developed to reinforce current recommendations for math and science instruction, say Mr. Jovanovich and other textbook publishers.

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