Standardized tests: Not so bad after all?

Good scores in California, combined with a new study showing parental support for tests, bolster movement.

Just after the bell that summons her two children to class at Dixie Canyon Elementary School, parent Shelly Eastman is holding forth about the school district's standardized tests.

"There are things I don't like, such as branding kids too early," she says. "But I'm seeing the bigger picture of how necessary they are in ... getting different schools on the same page and letting parents and schools know where their students stand."

The comments reflect what national education experts say is a more accurate - and less negative - appraisal of American attitudes toward standardized testing.

As the practice has spread to 48 states during the past six years, much has been made of a backlash - ranging from angry demonstrations to some parents forbidding their children from taking the tests. But a new national study, along with successful test results last week from California - home to 1 in 10 of the nation's pupils - suggest Americans' perceptions of the tests may not be as uncharitable as previously thought.

"Coming together at once, the California results and this new study show that orchestrated efforts to whip up public sentiment against assessment have been overstated," says Amy Wilkins, policy analyst for Education Trust, a Washington think tank. "What both are showing is that we need to refine our debate beyond just having standards themselves to the fair implementation and interpretation of such tests."

Golden glow

In California, the test scores are a hopeful sign after years of decline. The past 25 years have seen the Golden State slide from the top of many education rankings to below 40th overall.

According to a state report, 71 percent of public schools lifted their scores significantly - enough for schools to qualify for millions of dollars of incentives that were set aside to spur such achievement. The scores of poor, black, and Latino students improved more than those of whites and Asian-Americans. Experts attribute the improvement to a host of reforms including smaller class sizes, higher academic standards, and more money at teachers' disposal.

"These results show that higher expectations work," says Gov. Gray Davis, who campaigned heavily on a platform of education reform. "After two years, our schools are exceeding even my most optimistic expectations."

The same day California released its statistics, a major study suggested that the parental backlash against standards testing has been vastly overstated. In fact, only 2 percent of parents surveyed expressed a desire for the nation to return to the way things were before educational standards were in place.

"Reports of the death of the standards movement have been wildly exaggerated," says Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda, the Washington-based public-policy research organization that completed the study.

Perhaps surprisingly, only 10 percent or fewer felt their children suffered adverse effects from standardized testing: too much pressure academically, too much homework, or too many standardized tests.

"The California results and the Public Agenda study show that the American public has confused the concern about the abuses of standardized tests with a backlash against the whole standardized-testing reform movement," says Joan Baratz-Snowden, acting director of the American Federation of Teachers, which is based in Washington. "This whole process is moving along and getting correction and refinement as it goes. We are not there yet, but these results show it can all be used to significant advantage when done right."

But critics of such conclusions say that even the seemingly positive Public Agenda survey holds some warning flags. It found, for instance, that 80 percent of respondents didn't want the results of a single test to determine whether a student should graduate to the next grade. That shows that a backlash against at least some aspects of standards-based reform is valid, the critics say.

At least 24 states have graduation tests in place and more are considering them. At least 13 have tied grade promotion to tests.

"I concur wholeheartedly with parents who continue to hold that one test should not determine whether a student is ready to move on or not," says Joan Baca, principal of George Washington Elementary School in Burbank, Calif. "Standards are important, and we all need to be on the same page, but the important thing is to make sure the curriculum being tested is age appropriate."

Rewards for the rich?

Ms. Baca and others also criticize the California test results - and the resulting monetary awards - for being unfair. Schools that qualified for awards will be dividing $677 million.

"Teachers in rich schools don't have to do anywhere near as much work to get their children to perform as teachers in low-income schools," says Baca.

Despite such criticisms, national experts say the pro-standards movement has received a major boost.

"What has been good about the criticisms of the standards movement is that it has heightened the debate and is bringing about refinements," such as using the tests to determine what students needs to know rather than branding them, says Kathy Christie, of the Education Commission for the States in Denver. "It is keeping people on their toes to make them aware there are other things to consider than just the test score itself."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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