Testing, testing, testing ...

Here's a quiz: How do you improve student reading? How do you improve failing schools? Or measure a good teacher? These days, one answer predominates: Give a test. Exams are the new darlings of many school reformers. Here in Massachusetts, 1998 could have been dubbed the year of the test. For the first time, prospective teachers sat for eight hours to demonstrate general knowledge and a grasp of their subject area. The state's fourth-, eighth-, and tenth-graders sat for equally onerous periods (cumulatively) to take new tests that will determine everything from their schools' reputations to permission to graduate. And to ensure that no one is left out, the state board of education is talking about testing second-graders on reading progress. Could we put down the No. 2 pencils for just a moment? I happen to think some testing is a good idea. I'm happy, for example, in the knowledge that the state test includes essay writing. Even in the later primary-school years, my kids were often getting questions on class tests like: "The Viking who led an expedition from Greenland in about 1002 and landed in North America was named ____." Maybe now these queries will require constructing a few complete sentences in a row and connecting several facts. Other tests, like those for teachers, can also raise standards. But with the rush toward frequent testing, you start to wonder if testers have any faith in what's going on in classrooms that reaches beyond state mandates. Tests provide useful benchmarks. They may encourage a more unified curriculum district to district, benefiting kids who move. They can revive neglected areas. But put in place too many - kids in Massachusetts now face a variety of tests in third, fourth, eighth, and tenth grades, not to mention the PSAT and SAT - and it starts to sound like daily drill and kill. It also sounds as if not a teacher in the land is capable of gauging progress by using anything other than a test handed down from on high. States should proceed cautiously with "get tough" testing. "Quality Counts," an annual study just released by Education Week, points out that 48 states will test students in 1999, but only 19 plan to release public ratings of their schools or identify poor performers. If kids and teachers have to move mountains to take these tests, then more states should stand ready to do something substantial with the results. Tests are helping to loose the grip of "lowest common denominator" thinking. But in the movement to raise the bar, their creators shouldn't forget the gains that can come from teaching that veers from the road well-traveled. Amelia Newcomb is the Learning editor. Send e-mail comments to newcomba@csps.com

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