Lost in the shuffle is the dumbing down of genuine learning.
By Peter Sacks
We are a nation of testing junkies, starting with our toddlers, some of whom take IQ tests for admission to kindergarten. Many Americans encounter a lifetime of standardized testing in schools, colleges and workplaces.
What good does this testing really do? Following the lead of many states, Gov. Gray Davis is hellbent on creating a test that California high-schoolers must pass in order to graduate. Testing companies initially balked at developing such a test, fearful of the potential liability of tossing together a politically driven test of such major consequences.
California should pause and take a look at Texas. Nowhere is the accountability movement more dominant than there, where each spring schoolchildren take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Sophomores must pass the TAAS "exit test" in order to graduate -- regardless of the academic records they compiled over 11 years in the state's school system. Under the leadership of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the TAAS test has reshaped the state's educational enterprise. It also has deepened class and race divisions in Texas schools.
Crusaders for school accountability and tougher standards often point to Texas as the model for school improvement in the United States. Recently, these crusaders were bolstered by a federal judge's long-awaited ruling that use of the TAAS test does not unconstitutionally harm the state's minority schoolchildren. Whether the Texas model is educationally sound, however, is another question altogether.
In the 20 years prior to the first TAAS exit tests in the early 1990s, some 60% of black and Latino students made it from the 9th grade to graduation three years later. Now that figure is half -- roughly 100,000 to 200,000 fewer. A study by Walter Haney, professor of education at Boston College, suggests that the TAAS roadblock can be blamed for this disparity.
These TAAS barriers might well be worth the effort if there were good evidence that a student's performance on the test had a meaningful connection to his or her chances of success in the classroom or beyond in the real world. In Texas, as in most states that have built such formidable testing systems, such evidence is slim to nonexistent.
Indeed, wherever you find a high-stakes school achievement test in which scores are tied to high school graduation, teacher promotion or accreditation by the state, you will find all manner of "teaching the test" drills that have little to do with real learning.
In fact, some research indicates that just the opposite occurs. Dozens of studies from sources as diverse as the National Research Council, the Rand Corp., the Educational Testing Service and independent researchers have demonstrated that large-scale testing attached to major, life-changing consequences simply serves to dumb down and trivialize student learning.
For their part, Texas officials point to declines in the gaps between minority and white pass-rates in recent years. For example, this year 86% of white students passed the TAAS, compared to 60% of African American students. While it is true that this is less than the 36-point difference in pass-rates between the two groups five years ago, it is not surprising that rates have improved for African Americans, given that TAAS rules Texas classrooms with an iron fist. Teachers report spending inordinate amounts of valuable instruction time prepping for the TAAS exams.
Who really wins in this unrelenting push for more testing at ever-higher stakes? Over the past three years, I've scoured the research and have talked to dozens of students, teachers and parents, and the answer seems depressingly clear: elected representatives who have capitalized on voter outcry for tougher standards and greater accountability.
Americans who fall for this political rhetoric fail to understand that this testing mania comes at the cost of genuine learning and sustained achievement. If California parents and taxpayers were to look below the surface of tough talk by the likes of Gov. Davis, Gov. Bush and others, they would discover that the standardized testing movement is built on smoke and mirrors, helpful only to career politicians and large testing companies.
The sad part is that, at day's end, schoolchildren are the losers. --------------------------------------------------------------------------- Peter Sacks Is the Author of "Standardized Minds: the High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It" (Perseus Books, 2000). **********************************************************
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