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Topic: Even a U.S. Senator could fail this test
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Even a U.S. Senator could fail this test
Posted: Jan 13, 2000 12:39 PM
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From USA Today, January 13, 2000, p. 17A

Even a senator could fail this school test

By Paul D. Wellstone [U.S. Senator from Minnesota]

Last week, a U.S. district court judge ruled that Texas could continue to
use standardized tests as the sole determinant of whether its high school
students graduate. In the lukewarm words of the judge, "the system is not
perfect, but the court cannot say that it is unconstitutional."

"Not perfect" -- now there's an understatement. Students and parents across
the country are experiencing shock waves from this educational "reform"
known as high-stakes testing. Hoping to fix troubled public school systems
in one fell swoop, states and school districts are over-relying on these
standardized tests that can make or break a child's future.

'Getting tough'

Legislators are the ones forcing schools to use standardized tests to
reward and punish schools and to make high-stakes decisions regarding
student placement, advancement and even graduation. These tests let
politicians thump their chests, proclaim they are "getting tough" on
underachieving schools, and boast that they are demanding more from

That's fine on a bumper sticker, but in reality it can be disastrous -- for
kids and their parents, for schools, for teachers and for administrators.

I should know. I was one of those students who received consistently low
scores on standardized tests, from my early school days to my graduate
school entrance exams. Because of a learning disability, I did poorly on
the tests and would have been held back. I was told repeatedly by some
advisers that on the basis of my test scores I would fail academically. I'm
convinced that I never would have received my doctorate if I had taken the
results of standardized tests too seriously or listened to those who put so
much credence in what they measured.

OK as part of a package

Used appropriately, standardized tests have their place. But true
accountability requires several performance measures, such as samples of
student class work, measures of critical thinking, teacher evaluations and
attendance rates. When they're the sole measure of student performance,
high-stakes tests are an abdication of responsibility and a simplistic
attempt at education reform.

Serious questions exist about the reliability and validity of these tests.
A 1999 National Academy of Sciences study concluded that "no single test
score can be considered a definitive measure of a student's knowledge," and
that "an educational decision that will have a major impact on a test-taker
should not be made solely or automatically on the basis of a single test
score." It added: "High-stakes decisions such as tracking, promotion and
graduation should not automatically be made on the basis of a test score
but should be buttressed by other relevant information about the student's
knowledge and skills."

Test makers themselves warn against using tests for high-stakes purposes.
And research has shown that improvements in test scores don't necessarily
correlate with other indicators of student achievement.

When standardized tests become the sole means of measuring achievement,
they can be educationally deadening. The rush to improve test scores
prompts teachers to tailor curricula and assignments to mirror the tests,
using multiple-choice and other rote techniques. The creativity and
imagination of teachers are cast aside in the pressure to "teach to the

Some lose before they even try

Even worse, in some states these tests are fueling a full-scale retreat
from educational equity. When we impose high-stakes tests on an educational
system where there are gross inequalities, and do nothing to address the
underlying causes of those inequalities, we set up children to fail.

If we continue to refuse to invest fully in vital early childhood
education, child care, after-school programs and federal programs for poor
schools, we simply perpetuate the status quo. The students who continue to
fail will be disproportionately poor and minorities -- and educationally

We must never stop demanding that children do their best, and we must never
retreat from high standards and accountability. Measures of student
performance can include standardized tests, but only when coupled with
other measures of achievement, greater education reforms and much more
substantial and sustained investment in education.

I've visited public schools once every few weeks since becoming a senator.
I've seen firsthand that, if given the opportunities, all children can
learn and achieve.

When children do poorly on these tests, we shouldn't confuse their failure
with our own failure to make real the American promise of equal educational
opportunity for all.
U.S. Sen. Paul D. Wellstone is a Democrat from Minnesota.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)


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