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.
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 students.
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 tests."
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 underserved.
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) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org