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The merit missed by a testing culture

Two words have come to dominate the increasingly rancorous debate over how to improve American education: "accountability" and "high-stakes testing."

The goal is to ensure that all students complete their schooling in command of tools they'll need as adults. But even as states toughen classroom standards and require standardized exams for graduation from high school, some critics are counseling caution.

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One skeptic of current reform efforts is Peter Sacks, a journalist and former college teacher. His new book, "Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It" (Perseus), traces testing's role in society, from the origins of IQ measurements to the saga of a Texas girl's extended struggle to pass a state graduation exam.

The higher the stakes linked to standardized tests, the more important it is for the public to understand how dramatically tests can shape an education, Mr. Sacks says. Results can govern everything from a student's class placement to winning a college scholarship.

Excerpts follow from a recent interview with Sacks by Monitor Learning editors Amelia Newcomb and Stacy Teicher:

On the perception of a crisis in public schools:

The recent round of states adopting new accountability testing schemes ... can be traced at least in part to the 1983 "Nation at Risk" report [by a US Department of Education commission], which basically said ... the schools were on the precipice of failure....

In my book I attack that proposition, suggesting that the schools were not at risk in 1983 ... and they haven't been since.... There's certainly evidence to suggest that colleges and universities and some employers may be dissatisfied by the amount of remedial work that they think they have to do....

But will more standardized testing ... solve that problem?... We're adopting a standardized-testing technology; technology alone can't solve anything.

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In the broadest historical context, public officials, politicians, have always used tests of some sort as a means of gaining ... political control over this unwieldy democratic invention called the public schools.... [Saying] public schools are in a "state of crisis" is a political tool to control what schools are doing....

In a more contemporary sense, we find that elected officials love standardized testing in a crisis.... The politicians, I think, see it as a cheap and easy way to show ... [they] care about education....

On use of the business model in education:

It has major implications.... "We are the customers for your product." This is essentially the message that policymakers are listening to. The larger question - what is the role of the public schools in a democratic society? - is not being debated....

What we're seeing right now with public schools is the beginnings of a market model.... The market signals that are being developed are basically test scores. We'll find that dollars, whether they are state dollars or private dollars, will flow to schools that demonstrate success on this very narrow signal....

You'll find "turnaround artists" [turning] classrooms into test-drilling sessions.... It's the ones at the bottom of the heap that are getting the most demeaning kinds of teaching-to-the-test education.

On the quality of tests:

Even if it is a very good test, it will still be just a relatively small sampling of even the basic skills one is exposed to in, [for instance] fourth-grade mathematics.... You have to look also at test format itself. The speeded, multiple-choice nature of most standardized tests tends to reward some types of thinking ... and penalize other cognitive approaches.... Many of these tests tap surface-level cognitive thinking [rather than analytical thinking]....

You get different assessments of ability simply based on the value judgment of how you want to design a test.

On the right and wrong ways to use standardized tests:

I think there is a role for standardized testing; you have to use [tests] for what they're good for.... Because of their inherent unreliability, they're very poor tools for making sorting and selection and graduation decisions. They are a good tool to get a general idea of how a state or locality is doing. And you can get that kind of information without every student having to take that kind of test every year....

On alternatives to testing:

In terms of assessments that actually enrich the learning environment, I found that performance assessments, portfolios - these more-authentic kinds of assessments are transforming the classroom experience for even ... perennial underachievers.... The teachers tell me these kids need that bigger picture, more so than people who grew up in higher-educated families.... They begin to see the basics as tools, means to a useful end rather than an end itself in which they get punished for not doing well.

On school accountability:

Let's hold schools accountable for measures that matter, that have some real connection to the productivity of American citizens in a democracy.... Our college-admissions people are bright people.... [They could] look at records of actual accomplishment.... Make the measures broad enough so that you're promoting good teaching, not narrowly constricting teaching only to what corresponds to multiple-choice test items.

On changing the formulas for college admissions:

The legal and popular attacks on affirmative action ... are forcing institutions to really reassess what merit is. In the case of Texas,... they are being compelled legally to deemphasize test scores, so they are automatically admitting the top 10 percent [of each high school into the public universities]. They are also implementing ... what amounts to a sort of class-based admissions system, because they can no longer use race as a factor in admissions.... By deemphasizing test scores, by bringing up other sorts of weights, like neighborhoods, poverty rates, family education, they are finding they can hold their own in terms of diversity [and academic quality].

On what education will look like in 10 years if present trends continue:

We're going to see a transformation in the notion of what it means to be an educated person ... [with] schools, teachers, becoming essentially functionaries of educational bureaucracies....

We are at risk of dumping a whole generation onto the streets that isn't able to fit into that box that we're trying to fit everybody into.

There are going to be predictable declines in the number of kids who make it through the system.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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