Standardized Tests: Not So Bad after All? ; Good Scores in California, Combined with a New Study Showing Parental Support for Tests, Bolster Movement

Article excerpt

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. …