Standardized state tests are designed to be the antidotes to decades of laxity in public education. The statewide test scores are supposed to show whether students are learning what they should be. They should help end so-called "social promotion" from grade to grade and assure that diplomas have substance.
There's no question that many schools and school districts need the prod that state-mandated tests provide. The questions are (1) whether the tests should apply to all publicly funded schools regardless of the educational philosophy guiding them; and (2) whether the tests assess a broad-enough spectrum of knowledge and skills.
The first question has surfaced forcefully in places with "alternative schools" within the public system, as an article in today's Learning section notes. These schools often operate with a different set of assumptions from regular public schools. They're likely to focus on long-term projects - such as scientific experiments or original research papers - rather than shorter-term "units." Portfolios of student work, rather than traditional exams, are often the basis of grades.
Should such schools be held to the same state testing regimen?
Yes, because the state's judgment of what an education should impart ought to apply to every school under its jurisdiction. But the state officials creating the exams should strive to make the exams as broad as possible, with an emphasis on thinking skills.
Which brings up question 2. Every student should be able to read a text and understand it well enough to identify main points and answer questions about it. Every student should acquire the math skills needed to do basic calculations and grasp fundamental numerical relationships. These abilities should be common to students in regular public schools or alternative ones. The state has a right to be sure that's the case.
The situation gets murkier as tests delve into areas such as social studies. Should a student be expected to know some facts about the Civil War, for instance, even if his alternative school never taught the subject?
Concerns about a common heritage and civic awareness legitimately come into play. But the states would be wise not to get too dogmatic about what everyone must know.
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