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How to Use School Tests

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This school year could be a milestone in holding educators accountable for their students' performance. In pace-setter states, such as California and Massachusetts, accountability is on a fast-track.

The tool of choice is the statewide test, a rather blunt instrument to force schools to reform. Its widespread use prompts caution.

Just when teachers are trying new ways of learning, many states are mandating a one-size-fits-all orthodoxy through tests. A certain yeastiness in teaching might be lost.

Such tests can help determine whether youngsters as a whole are acquiring a basic core of knowledge and skills. They can guide educators to fix problems highlighted by test results. And they alert parents to take action when a school is faltering.

But a drive for high test results can also put schools in straitjackets on curricula and teaching. Standards can't be enforced in schools as they are in a factory. Learning is a creative enterprise that requires different approaches to individual needs and talents. Tests should be a guide for schools, but not the guiding light in classrooms.

In California, high school students must now past a statewide test to graduate. Massachusetts plans to release statewide test results for every school on the theory that educators and communities with low rankings can be shamed into reform, almost as it they were forced to wear a scarlet letter - "F" for failure - in public.

Such rankings, however, may push more parents to just flee their communities or abandon public schools altogether rather than work to improve them.

New York City just had the discomfiting experience of finding that tests it administered last spring had been wrongly scored. As a result, thousands of children were assigned to summer school who shouldn't have been. Some may be held back a grade. Errors in scoring tests have affected student rankings in a number of states since 1996, raising questions about the reliability of tests.

Presidential aspirant George W. Bush, governor of Texas, proposes tying federal education dollars to test results. Nice idea, but that could necessitate using nationwide test standards, which would undercut local control of schools.

All the new interest in tests is belied by a survey that finds 71 percent of parents give a grade of A or B to their children's schools. That percentage drops to 23 if the schools in question are more broadly "the nation's."

The poll, conducted by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, also shows strong backing (three-quarters) for more spending on schools. Eighty-three percent favor equalizing funding between rich and poor districts.

Those opinions suggest that politicians deciding which reforms to run with - such as statewide tests - might keep a close ear to the grass roots.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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