Achievement Tests Put Pressure on Students and Schools
Catherine Foster, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
PUBLIC demand for improved performance from local schools in the United States is putting pressure on school districts to find ways to raise scores on standardized achievement tests.
These tests frequently are the only barometers for measuring how well pupils are doing in school. As a result, they also have come to signal how well teachers are teaching and ultimately how effectively public schools are educating.
In some cases this is leading to cheating by school personnel.
A teacher in Rochester, N.Y., who requested anonymity, says that in the last three years, the pressure on teachers in her school to produce high test scores has grown tremendously. She has been given an answer key along with tests, she says, adding that this never used to happen. Some veteran teachers have vowed to do whatever it takes to have good results; rookies have been reduced to tears because of the pressure, she says.
"It's very demoralizing and confusing. It pits teacher against teacher. No one knows what the standard is. Some teachers read the problems to students," she says.
Observers say the problem has developed because the stakes have grown so high. "All the pressure has built up because these tests are one of few indicators we have of how well kids are doing in school," says Walter Haney, senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Testing at Boston College.
"We use test results from everything from diagnosing students' individual deficiencies, to holding teachers accountable, to holding schools accountable. You can't use it for all those purposes without it serving some of them not well at all."
Cheating ranges from alteration of answers by teachers or principals, to giving teachers the questions ahead of time to "teach the test," to using the same test year after year so students will get to know the questions, to using old tests with outdated norms so the students will be smarter than the test.
Cheating was found in 40 California elementary schools in 1988, according to the state department of education.
But things are starting to change. Last year, Texas passed tough legislation that holds test publishers liable for triple damages for selling tests with inaccurate or outdated norms.
Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee have totally revamped their standardized testing program. Kentucky is going to start, and West Virginia and South Carolina are in the early stages of reform.
Part of the impetus for the changes may have come from the efforts of a physician named John Cannell who has been a one-man watchdog over the issue of cheating on standardized achievement tests. He singled out the six states above as well as North Carolina and Georgia as having systematic cheating. …