The Big Score: High-Stakes Tests Are Rapidly Becoming a Rite of Passage in Districts around the Country. but Do They Really Improve Learning?

Newsweek, September 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Big Score: High-Stakes Tests Are Rapidly Becoming a Rite of Passage in Districts around the Country. but Do They Really Improve Learning?


Inside Chicago's top-ranked Whitney Young High School, the posters started appearing last December. LET'S BE #1! GIVE IT 110%! Usually this sort of rah-rah propaganda supports the basketball team, but this campaign by the principal had a different aim: urging kids to score high on the Illinois Goal Assessment Program, a standardized test that students would take in February. Tests are nothing new to the kids at Whitney Young--they already take three other batteries of standardized exams each year. But for a group of high-achieving 11th graders, the pressure was just too much. These kids say real learning is being shoved aside as teachers focus on boosting test scores. Creative writing? Forget it. Instead, they say, teachers emphasize a boilerplate essay format that exam scorers prefer. So on Feb. 2, eight juniors purposely failed the social-studies portion of the test. The next day 10 failed the science test. Then they sent a letter to the principal: "We refuse to feed into this test-taking frenzy."

As rebellions go, it wasn't exactly the Boston Tea Party. But it's a small sign of the growing anxiety among parents, teachers and kids over the proliferation of standardized tests. Fill-in-the-bubble exams have been part of classroom life for decades, but for most of their history they were no big deal. Scores were tucked in students' folders; at most, they were used to segregate kids into higher- and lower-level classes. That's changed dramatically in the last decade as reformers try to improve school quality by holding educators accountable for learning. Every state has a different testing scheme, but many state legislatures are writing new standards for what kids should learn in each grade and mandating tough new "high stakes" tests to gauge progress. Unlike such old-style standardized tests as the Iowas or Metropolitans, many of the new exams are linked to the curriculum and feature essays and short answers, not just multiple choice. The biggest difference: low scores can bring real pain. Kids can be held back, forced into summer school or, under rules in 26 states, denied a diploma. Educators can lose pay or be fired; schools can face state takeover. In polls, the tests win wide public support, and more states are jumping on the bandwagon.

Yet there is no easy answer to the most basic question: do these tests help kids learn? As the testing movement has grown, opposing experts have churned out a mountain of conflicting research. Fans of the tests say they're as necessary to schooling as a scale is to dieting. Ideally, they're diagnostic tools, letting teachers know Jack doesn't understand two-digit multiplication and Jill needs help with subject-verb agreement. Yes, it's sad that a single exam might keep a child from graduating, but most European countries already use exit exams, and some U.S. students are kept from graduating for lesser offenses, like flunking gym or cutting too many classes. And as schools ask for money to hire teachers and cut class size, taxpayers have every right to expect a measurable payback. Supporters of the new exams point to encouraging results in Texas, one of the first states to implement this type of reform plan.

Despite those arguments, a growing number of critics say this testing inevitably leads to dumbed-down teaching. "Every hour that teachers feel compelled to try to raise test scores is an hour not spent helping kids become critical, creative, curious thinkers," says Alfie Kohn, author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve." It's those skills, after all, that put the United States ahead of world competitors in areas like entrepreneurship. Last fall the National Research Council warned Congress that schools should refrain from basing important decisions like who gets promoted or graduates solely on test scores, and called for more exploration of the unintended consequences of high-stakes exams. Teachers in the inner cities, where many children are being held back for failing the tests, worry that these exams are overwhelming their already overcrowded and understaffed classrooms.

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