Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Undermining Standards

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Undermining Standards

Article excerpt

Perhaps the glare of the Presidential spotlight will end up exposing the flaws in high-stakes testing, Mr. Merrow points out. That unintended outcome would actually help the move to create genuine high standards across public education.

DO YOU KNOW your blood pressure? Your cholesterol level? Many people may have a rough idea of those numbers, but odds are that few know the error range of those measurements. I was shocked to discover that for both figures the error range can be 20 or 30 points. Surely no good doctor would prescribe medication for "high blood pressure" based on one reading, or multiple readings for that matter. No heart surgeon would operate based simply on your dangerously high cholesterol level. More and different tests and procedures would be called for, because the goal is improved health.

But politicians and education policy makers demonstrate an increasing willingness to make life-changing decisions about our children based on their performance on a standardized, machine-scored, multiple-choice test. Their goal may be the improved "educational health" of students, but their method, high-stakes testing, is little more than a sophisticated, technological form of "Gotcha!"

To be forthright, I believe that high-stakes tests are a serious threat to excellence and national standards. Unchecked, they will choke the life out of many excellent schools and drive gifted teachers out of classrooms. Furthermore, they will lead to debased and unnecessarily low standards, undermining the very cause for which they were instituted in the first place. Bad tests, used to make high-stakes decisions, are the enemy of good (i.e., high) standards. I am not alone in this opinion. The highly respected annual review of schooling known as Quality Counts recently declared:

State tests are overshadowing the standards they were designed to measure and could be encouraging undesirable practices in schools. Some tests do not adequately reflect the standards or provide a rich enough picture of student learning. And many states may be rushing to hold students and schools accountable for results without providing the essential support.1

All students in U.S. schools are tested, probably too much. In some schools, students spend weeks and months actually prepping for the test, virtually abandoning the curriculum. For all the talk about standards, it's the tests that matter most. They have become, in the words of Anthony Bryk of the University of Chicago, "the load-bearing wall" of education's basic structure.

In the best of situations, tests are aligned with, but secondary to, the curriculum, and results are used to describe students' strengths and weaknesses. "Describe" is the correct term, not "diagnose," although the latter is more often used. Test results pinpoint weaknesses but do not explain why the student has gotten something wrong. Think of it this way: a test may reveal that you consistently get wrong answers on simple addition problems, but that fact is not enough to tell your teacher why you are making those mistakes. Finding out why requires diagnosis, a careful analysis of how you are approaching the problems and what you do not understand. Diagnosis requires a skilled human being.2

The Lay of the Land

Standards and their apparently inevitable but unwelcome companion, high-stakes testing, are with us now. Forty-nine states have already developed, or are developing, educational standards. Iowa chose to let local districts develop their own standards. Twelve states now use tests to determine promotion from grade to grade, and more are jumping on that bandwagon. Every year millions of high school juniors and seniors take the SAT, the descendant of the I.Q. test, and those scores (or ACT scores) figure significantly in college admission decisions. These tests meet any definition of "high stakes"; they have serious consequences for the students taking them, as well as for their schools and (occasionally) for their teachers and administrators. …

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