Magazine article The American Prospect

Selling Higher Test Scores

Magazine article The American Prospect

Selling Higher Test Scores

Article excerpt

It's hard to imagine the nation's students profiting from the latest fad in education policy, the new mania for high-stakes testing; but commercial businesses already are.

Consider what's happening in Massachusetts. In 1993 the state enacted a sweeping education reform plan whose centerpiece is the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a series of grueling exams for students in the fourth, eighth, and tenth grades. Starting with this year's sophomores, no Massachusetts public school student will be able to graduate from high school without passing the exam, and decisions on promotion at lower grade levels will often depend on MCAS results. The attendant anxiety has created a ready market for Kaplan, the company best known for helping high schoolers prepare for the SAT. So far, it has published two guides to the MCAS for elementary and middle-school students and their families, and more are to come. These guides include tips on everything from pacing yourself and choosing answers by a process of elimination to writing a well-structured essay and doing basic math. The Princeton Review, Kaplan's biggest competitor in the SAT test-prep business, plans to have its own MCAS guide out by next March.

"I'm a working mother," says Peggy Wiesenberg, a parent from Boston. "I don't want to spend my free time working on test prep--my kids should be enjoying their childhood instead." But such sentiments are being crushed in the stampede to test. Twenty-seven states have now established mandatory testing programs, many with stakes as high as in Massachusetts. "The pressure that we're putting on young kids is phenomenal," says Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). "Kids believe, to a certain extent correctly, that their education and career opportunities will be determined by how they fill in the bubbles and write those three-paragraph essays." And test-prep companies and educational publishers know an opportunity when they see it. "They're like circling vultures," says Alfie Kohn, the author of The Schools Our Children Deserve. "They find a place where there's a new test, and then they offer their services."

Many educators decry the new testing craze, arguing that it distracts schools from real learning. The tests count for so much that teachers often "teach to the test" and center their lesson plans around test-taking skills or, in extreme cases, cancel field trips so they'll have more time to get ready or quit teaching whole subjects if they won't appear on the exam. Student anxiety levels are soaring, the critics say, while the tests measure only a single dimension of real accomplishment--and even that without great reliability. Moreover, as Susan Mayer and Christopher Jencks recently pointed out in The New York Times, the severe penalties for low scores seem to be driving students to drop out--and lose out on the benefits that schooling demonstrably offers even those with low test scores. In all these ways, high-stakes testing is unfair to the students it is supposed to serve.

Teachers and administrators, meanwhile, often feel that the success of their careers and the fate of their schools depend on test scores. In some states, the pressure on educators is explicit. In Florida, for instance, schools are assigned a grade of A to F based on their students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), with state funding on the line.

The response to these pressures can be unhealthy for everyone involved. Some schools try to classify potential low scorers as special-needs students so they won't be counted in the school's average test scores; others, critics charge, ignore the neediest students in favor of those on the line between passing and failing. There also seems to be outright cheating. Last year the entire Austin Independent School District was indicted for tampering with Texas test booklets; this was the first time in Texas history that criminal charges were filed against a school district. …

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