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Topic: States Teeter When Balancing Standards With Tests
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Andrew Chen

Posts: 8
Registered: 12/3/04
States Teeter When Balancing Standards With Tests
Posted: May 7, 2002 9:52 AM
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http://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/01/education/01LESS.html

The New York Times
May 1, 2002

LESSONS
States Teeter When Balancing Standards With Tests
By RICHARD ROTHSTEIN


Critics of standardized tests lament that teachers are now being
compelled
to "teach to the test." Most people are befuddled by this complaint.
As
President Bush said, if we are teaching math and reading, teaching to
math
and reading tests makes sense.

But the critics do have something of a point. Math and reading include
many
distinct skills. If a test gauges only a few of the skills regarded as
important, teachers may emphasize only those that are tested, ignoring
other skills that are just as crucial.

Almost every state has adopted higher standards and tests to see if
students meet them. Most officials, however, don't know if their tests
are
any good. So some states have asked Achieve Inc., a nonprofit
consulting
firm, to evaluate some of their tests. Achieve's board includes
governors
and executives, led by John Engler, governor of Michigan, and Louis V.
Gerstner Jr., chairman of I.B.M.

Achieve has found that most tests are poorly matched to state
standards. As
a result, states are requiring one set of skills while creating
incentives
to teach a different set. Of all the tests it studied, Achieve found
that
only the Massachusetts 10th grade tests were relatively well-aligned
with
the state's standards. (Achieve's evaluations can be seen at
www.achieve.org.)

There are two criteria for judging if tests and standards are aligned,
but
states typically fulfill only one. First, every test question must
assess a
skill actually found in the standards. This mostly happens.

Second, every required standard must be assessed, either by tests,
student
work samples or other evaluations. Over all, skills should have the
same
relative importance in tests as in standards. Otherwise, teachers will
have
incentives to give less emphasis to skills not found on tests.

States have mostly failed to keep this balance between standards and
test
questions. Consider a Minnesota fifth-grade reading standard that
expects
pupils to identify both the main idea and supporting details in a
passage.
That is a good standard; if Minnesota assessed it, teaching to its
test
would indeed teach reading.

But the state's test emphasizes identification of details, not the
main
idea. A test with this flaw might have a passage about Harriet Tubman
but
then have pupils identify her home state (Maryland) without asking
them to
articulate the theme of the passage: how the underground railroad
advanced
anti-slavery struggles.

Educators call identifying details a "basic skill." Discerning a main
idea
is a "higher-order skill." Teachers preparing for tests mostly of
basic
skills will not do much to train students in higher-order thinking.

Jennifer Vranek, now director of a group that promotes higher
standards in
Washington State, oversaw most of Achieve's studies. Ms. Vranek said
that
state tests typically overemphasized basic skills. Every state has a
middle
school geometry standard about measuring figures like triangles,
squares,
prisms and cones. But tests ask mainly about the simpler forms, like
triangles and squares.

Most people think that if test scores are low, basic skills should be
a
priority. After all, it seems, students should master the basics
first. But
good teaching lets basic and higher skills reinforce each other. With
the
Tubman passage, a child need not perfect an ability to recall details
before learning to summarize a main idea.

Or consider a basic skill like two-digit multiplication. Students who
can
multiply may still make errors and fail test questions. But students
can
move on to somewhat more advanced skills, like solving simple algebra
equations, while continuing to practice multiplying. If tests focus
mostly
on basics, teachers may assign too much multiplication and too little
algebra. Higher scores will make it seem, wrongly, that students met
state
standards.

Misalignment mostly results from wanting tougher standards on the
cheap. It
costs more to test complex skills than basic ones. Many standards
cannot be
assessed with inexpensive, mostly multiple-choice tests, even if the
tests
also ask for a few short-essay answers.

Wisconsin's literacy standard, for example, expects high school
students to
prepare a research paper that detects bias in sources. Checking if
students
meet this standard requires specialists to grade work samples, and it
requires trusting teacher evaluations of class projects. Instead,
Wisconsin
tests literacy mostly by having students infer what reading passages
mean.
This skill is important, but only part of the standard.

Achieve's analysts have concluded that standards and tests have gotten
better, and that more improvement lies ahead. Perhaps so, but until
states
create tests that truly test the standards, teachers who complain
about
having to teach to the test should be given a fuller hearing.

E-mail: rrothstein@nytimes.com

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company






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