Educational tests worth keeping

It's unusual to spend more than 10 minutes talking with the parents of a school-age child and not hear about testing. Next to smaller classes and safe schools, testing has become one of the most discussed education issues of the decade.

Parents, teachers, and students are all talking about the time spent taking tests, and the greater emphasis schools are placing on test scores. Judging from the tenor of the discussion, it appears that a backlash has emerged against testing. There are calls to modify state assessment programs and, in some cases, to do away with them.

While some modifications may be in order, I hope the backlash isn't strong enough to eliminate many of the new state education reforms. If we get rid of the tests, we won't have a way to measure the academic standards on which they are based. And we'll lose our ability to hold schools accountable for results.

In the 1980s, many of our governors, educators, and business leaders looked at the poor performance of our students in relation to their peers abroad. Our students' failure to measure up to the rest of the world spurred the development of education standards. To measure these standards, the states created challenging new education assessments.

Now as the standards-based education movement is taking hold, these assessments are being used in most states. As a result, parents, students, and educators are seeing the real "teeth" of the reform: tough, challenging assessments. They're also seeing teachers introduce equally challenging curricula to help prepare students.

None of this is meant to suggest that the new state testing programs are perfect. Most of them are new and many of them may need some modification. But the long-term future of the new reforms will depend upon the states' ability to do it right.

First, states shouldn't rely on one proficiency test to make a "high stakes" decision on failing a child. They must use "multiple measures," including such criteria as grade point averages and individual evaluations.

Second, states should commit time to develop, pilot, and implement valid, fair, and reliable testing programs. It takes three to four years to do it. But, there are several instances where state legislators have mandated development and implementation of new programs in less than two years. This only sets up a scenario for mistakes.

Third, tests should only be used for the purposes for which they are designed. We shouldn't retain a student in a grade for failing to meet local education standards by using a test designed to provide national comparative information.

Finally, states should adjust testing policies when it's clear they aren't working well. Tests are coming under fire in some states for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with state-education policy, not the tests themselves. Some parents say the tests are too long. Others say the assessments are too difficult. Parents of children in special-education programs are concerned about accommodations. But, these are policy issues states need to address.

Today's tests perform a variety of critical functions. They help provide information to better target instructional practices. They monitor educational systems for public accountability. They evaluate program effectiveness. They measure student achievement, and they evaluate students' mastery of standards and essential skills.

Our tests may not be perfect, but they are the best method of measuring student achievement and school accountability.

*Michael H. Kean is vice president of public and governmental affairs at CTB/McGraw-Hill. He chairs the Test Committee of the Association of American Publishers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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