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Topic: What do exams evaluate?
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
What do exams evaluate?
Posted: Jul 3, 2000 5:57 PM
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From the Chicago Tribune, Friday, June 30, 2000, Section 1, p. 26
[Opinion page]. See,2669,SAV-0006300172,FF.html


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

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

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)


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