Testing Our Patience: Standardized Tests Have Their Uses. but Current Federal Law Uses Testing to Destroy Learning
Rothstein, Richard, The American Prospect
STATE AND FEDERAL LAW ASSUME THAT THE QUALITY of public education can be gauged by the number of students who reach the "proficiency" mark on a standardized test. Indeed, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law provides serious penalties for schools that fail to make sufficient annual gains in these numbers. It is a terribly misguided policy.
But the problem is not, as some critics argue, that all tests are invalid. Standardized tests can do a good job of indicating, though not with perfect certainty, whether students have mastered basic skills, can identify facts they should know or can apply formulas they have memorized. Such tests have a place in evaluating schools, as they do in evaluating students. However, they are of little use in assessing creativity, insight, reasoning and the application of skills to unrehearsed situations--each an important part of what a high-quality school should be teaching. Such things can be assessed, but not easily and not in a standardized fashion.
To judge schools exclusively by their test results is, therefore, to miss much of what matters in education. Relying on proficiency benchmarks makes things even worse. NCLB requires that every public-school child in grades three through eight be tested annually in reading and math (and within a few years, periodically in science). The law requires every school to report the percentage at each grade level who achieve proficiency and, separately, the percentage of each racial and ethnic minority group and the percentage of low-income children who achieve it. If every grade and subgroup does not make steady progress toward the national goal--the proficiency of all members in each subject by 2014--the penalties kick in.
But what exactly is "proficiency"? The new testing law models its definition on the one used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a set of federal exams in a variety of subjects given to a sample of students nationwide. The NAEP tests such a broad span of skills that each test-taker can be asked only a small share of its questions, and the test results must be aggregated to generate average performance numbers. The NAEP then describes these group averages as either "below basic," "basic," "proficient" or "advanced." Panels of citizens decide where the lines …
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Publication information: Article title: Testing Our Patience: Standardized Tests Have Their Uses. but Current Federal Law Uses Testing to Destroy Learning. Contributors: Rothstein, Richard - Author. Magazine title: The American Prospect. Volume: 15. Issue: 2 Publication date: February 2004. Page number: 45+. © 1999 The American Prospect, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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