By David Ucker and William Walden Professors, College of Medicine / University of Illinois
CHICAGO -- Illinois students soon will be required to take a new Prairie State Achievement Examination during high school. Illinois' State Board of Higher Education has decided to add the ACT test to the portfolio of mandatory standardized tests administered to Illinois high school juniors ("Schools chief touts plan to require ACT in new Prairie exam," News, June 20). As recommended by the state board, individual performance on these standardized examinations will be recorded on the student's transcript and, further, will be linked with eligibility for reduced auto insurance rates.
The purpose of this plan is to address the perception that a lack of student motivation is responsible, in part, for disappointing student test performance. In this view, schools need to induce students to perform well on standardized exams. The notion of linking performance to a financial incentive seeks to address this concern.
These are deeply troubling decisions for our schools and our children. Two fundamental issues are raised by the choice of these strategies.
The first concerns what these tests really assess. How accurate and reliable can these exams be as measures of real student accomplishment if performance is so variable as to be affected by insurance rates or other (extrinsic) factors? Indeed, a wealth of data confirms that significant variations in exam performance among individuals can be attributed to factors other than academic accomplishment. These relate to sensitive issues of ethnicity, race and class.
Independent of intelligence or objective indicators of academic performance, tests appear to measure the familiarity and comfort of students to perform within a "standardized" format that is based on implicit cultural standards. To link auto insurance rates with exam performance furthers a cultural bias that is independent of real academic learning and behavior. This rewards students for their backgrounds and not for their performance.
At the same time, exam results that will be recorded on the student's transcript will have a profound effect on that student's academic future. The stated goal of the exam is to track student performance. Does this "incentivized" testing accomplish this goal?
The second issue concerns the motivation of schools to provide students these "incentives." Financial and other benefits accrue to schools and administrators as a function of aggregate student scores. In reality, schools benefit when scores are high and they suffer when scores are low. This dynamic has insidious consequences when scores, independent of educational outcome, become a goal in themselves: Students receive (or suffer) performance incentives, schools "teach to tests," and in the most extreme cases, exams are administered fraudulently.
Does the goal of enhancing student test performance serve the educational needs of our children?
It is time to reassess how we define reasonable goals for schools and for students, and how we evaluate their performances. The tragedy of emphasizing standardized performance criteria is that it is a distraction at best and a wholesale reversal at worst, from the principled goals of public education.
As a society, we rely on primary and secondary education to help students adapt to their communities, to assure that students learn and achieve competence in fundamentals, and to equip and--we can hope--encourage students for a lifetime of learning. We must use evaluative criteria that reflect these goals. ********************************************* -- 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