`THERE are 36 sheep and 10 goats on a ship. What's the age of the captain?"
When this question is inserted in the middle of a standardized multiple-choice test, a majority of schoolchildren ignore the correct answer ("none of the above"). Instead they add the two numbers and answer 46. They have been taught that when you see the word "and" in a word problem, you add.
"They're being perfectly reasonable within the framework that their schooling gives them," says Monty Neill, associate director of FairTest, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass. "You're really not supposed to think about the problems because they don't mean anything. You're just supposed to quickly figure out the rule and apply it."
In the midst of a nationwide interest in school reform and restructuring, states and educators are being forced to rethink testing and assessment methods. Multiple-choice tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), have long been under attack and the current shift in educational goals suggests that more sophisticated measurements are necessary.
The controversy was underscored earlier this month when Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos released the annual state-by-state performance report known as the "wall chart." The report card was released despite objections from the White House, officials acknowledged.
President Bush and the state governors met last September and outlined a 10-year program of reform for primary and secondary schools. Many educators suggest that a new yardstick is required to assess progress toward these goals.
"You can't go very much into school reform and school restructuring ... without tackling the problem of assessment," says Grant Wiggins, director of research for Consultants on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure (CLASS) in Rochester, N.Y.
In the process of revamping curricula, a number of states across the United States have begun to experiment with innovative testing methods. These alternative measurements - often called "performance-based testing" - take a variety of forms:
- California now uses open-ended problems as part of its mathematics test for 12th-graders and is piloting new testing in English, science, and history.
- Connecticut is introducing hands-on math and science testing for high schoolers.
- New York requires all 4th-graders to conduct a science test and report the results.
- Vermont is developing a program to include student work portfolios with standardized tests.
Some other states have plans to move away from multiple-choice testing to more authentic forms of testing.
For example, Kentucky, which is in the process of restructuring its schools, is aiming for performance-based testing across the grades by 1995.
Writing assessment has been the most readily adopted addition to multiple-choice testing. As many as 30 states now include essay writing of some sort in their testing programs.
"I think it's no accident that much of the work has been fueled by the success of local, and regional, and state writing projects, which easily led to developing writing assessments," says Mr. Wiggins.
While the quality and character of the various writing assessment programs vary greatly, the willingness to adopt such a practice suggests that administrators are willing to break away from strictly standardized, impersonal testing.
"Over the last 15 to 20 years we've simply become addicted to test scores," says Rexford Brown, director of communications at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. He calls for "reeducation" of the public and school officials on the issue.
"There's been a myth in …