Flunking the Tests


Democrats and Republicans alike are claiming the education bill as a victory. The national testing plan--mandating annual tests in grades three through eight, plus one in high school--is a significant departure from the past. As right-wing pundit Chester Finn once observed, liberals have traditionally hated the word "testing" and conservatives have hated the word "national." But old principles gave way to current political imperatives. Democrats seized on words like "accountability" and Republicans armed themselves with "compassion."

The bill is not, however, a victory for children in public schools, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Harvard Civil Rights Project has shown that poor and minority children are hurt the most by an excessive reliance on high-stakes testing--in which performance on standardized tests determines promotion to the next grade, graduation or even the survival of the school. High-stakes tests are associated with high dropout rates, an escalating problem among African-American boys. Exams alone don't motivate struggling students and can even have the opposite effect, according to a Boston College study.

What students need are tests that truly measure how well schools are teaching basic skills, accompanied by constructive responses to weak points--tutoring, after-school programs that go beyond remediation, summer school (when necessary) that does more than rehash the year's curriculum and, above all, expertly trained, decently paid teachers for all our schools, especially those serving a high concentration of poor students. The education bill emerging from Congress guarantees none of those things. …

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