George W. Bush thinks standardized testing is the key to rejuvenating public
education. Educators in Rhode Island don't agree
by Kathleen Hughes
For one week every May, in the classrooms of Vartan Gregorian Elementary
School, nestled between the end of Wickenden Street, I-195, and the mouth of
the Seekonk River in Providence, the Pokémon and 'N Sync lunchbox-toting
third, fourth, and fifth graders spend two daily hours filling in bubbles and
scrawling answers on the lines of standardized tests. As required by the Rhode
Island Department of Education (RIDE), the third graders may be writing about a
key they've discovered and what they do with it; the fourth graders may be
reading an essay about pot-bellied pigs as pets, or they may be figuring what
the chances are that Harry will choose a chocolate cookie from a tray of 20
cookies with three varieties; and the fifth graders may be answering questions
about people with HIV.
But wait, there's more. Starting last year, the Providence schools
superintendent Diana Lam mandated that third and fifth graders, as well as
sixth and seventh graders, will also take the Stanford 9 English, math, and
science tests. What this means, in short, is that students in the Providence
schools are tested every year between third and eighth grade on their English
and math skills. And if so much testing seems excessive, assistant
superintendent Melody Johnson defends the practice by noting the results are
diagnostic, and used strictly for professional and curriculum development, not
decisions about student advancement. "Like any other business," Johnson says.
"You have to have good data to make decisions. You can't hold schools
accountable if you only know where they are every four years."
Testing annually from third to eighth
Continued from the cover
grade is also a feature of a bill supported by President George W. Bush
that recently passed the US House of Representatives. Bush's rhetorical credo
that "No child be left behind" -- backed by a proposal to spend $300 million in
federal education dollars on the general public school population -- is a
first, since the federal government has heretofore only involved itself in
Title I kids: the poor and underprivileged, and the disabled. Educators such as
Peter McWalters, commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education,
praise Bush for this unprecedented commitment, and for his focus on fostering
literacy. But Bush's commitment narrows when it's made clear that the `every
child' $300 million is to be used strictly on the development and
implementation of annual testing for grades three to eight, according to the
House version of the bill.
The bill's proposed testing scheme is problematic, not just because funding
might be contingent on results -- thereby linking financial reward or
punishment with a 10-year-old-child's performance and using a test in a manner
for which it wasn't designed -- but also because states like Rhode Island might
be forced to forfeit their already frequent, well-established assessments, in
lieu of one or a few federally recognized tests -- a move that would seem
arbitrary or token at best. As McWalters puts it, "How many tests do you need
to know you've got a problem child?"
To be sure, we are, as the nation that introduced the IQ test, more obsessed
with mental measurement than our peers. "Our children are tested to an extent
that is unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere else in the
world," Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of testing, writes in Education
Week. Yet concern about standardized testing elsewhere in the country,
particularly multiple-choice tests and testing with direct implications for a
student's advancement, is rising, given racial and socio-economic inequities in
test questions and highly publicized scoring mistakes, resulting, for example,
in the mistaken denial of diplomas for dozens of high school students in
For some parents and educators, no standardized test is an accurate assessment
of students' skills. Testing is too subjective, and presents too much pressure,
they assert. Yet educators and experts more commonly agree with Johnson that
some testing must take place to assess how a school is performing and what it
might need to do to change. As the New York Times reported, one recent
poll by Public Agenda, a New York-based research firm, showed that 84 percent
of parents nationwide believe students should pass a test to get a diploma.
However, 75 percent felt "it was wrong to use the results of just one test."
The question, then, is not to test or not to test, but how to test, and what
should be done with the results.
Given Rhode Island's moderate approach to testing without high-stakes
consequences, "standardized testing" isn't a bad word here -- not yet, anyway.
But educators on the district and state level express concern about the havoc
that Bush's high-stakes testing mandate could wreak on current testing and
assessment programs, raising fundamental questions about the wisdom of his
plans for improving public education.
AS PHI Delta Kappan, an educator's journal, states in a January article
about testing, "The urgency of the need for systemic improvement of public
education would be difficult to overstate." Given that this urgency stems
partially from inability of many American students to identity the location of
Mexico, and from their consistently testing behind counterparts from other
industrialized nations, and given that we are the only nation to test children
for IQ as a matter of course, it's no wonder our elected leaders think an
augmented focus on mandatory tests of fact and skill will improve public
education. And to the extent public schools are perceived to have gone soft,
with teachers' energies more directed to discipline than curriculum, it's no
surprise that high-stakes consequences for testing is seen as a straightforward
tough-love approach, rather than a more nuanced, often self-defeating, one.
"Accountability," a favorite word of Republicans and George W. Bush in
particular, is the new buzzword used to justify mandatory, high-stakes testing
-- meaning schools' accountability to parents, taxpayers, and students for
their effectiveness. Indeed, among the troubled urban districts nationwide --
of which Providence might be considered one -- accountability means classrooms
can no longer be stranded and directionless, curriculum can't be ad hoc, and
graduation rates can no longer be a process of attrition. The main problem with
"accountability," is simply that it's superceding another buzzword: "standards"
In the difference between the two, one can trace most of what's amiss with
testing in the US today, as well as what's dangerous about Bush's plan.
A standards policy called, appropriately enough, New Standards, started in the
late '80s, explains professor Warren Simmons, director of the Annenberg
Institute for School Reform at Brown University, and former director of equity
policies and research at the National Center on Education and the Economy,
which cooperated with the University of Pittsburgh in developing the program.
No pass-or-fail, tracking, or funding consequences exist with New Standards,
which evolved in response to a nationwide variance, from district to district
and state to state, in public school curriculum and skill standards. As a
result, an "A" in English in Oklahoma City might communicate the mastery of a
wholly different skill set, to a different degree, than an "A" in English in
Atlanta or New York City. In Rhode Island alone, says Mary Ann Snider, RIDE's
director of assessment, "There were 36 different images . . . of what was
instructionally important -- Is it important to know facts and dates in social
studies, or to be able to go to primary sources and make critical decisions?"
New Standards tests, which combine essay questions with short answer and
multiple-choice, are used as one tool among several to gauge a student and
school's aptitude against internationally benchmarked performance standards in
math, English language arts, science, and applied learning, at elementary,
middle, and high school levels. Critically, New Standards tests are
teacher-developed, and the scrutiny of results by educators enables a fluid
translation into curriculum and teaching.
Recognition of the need for national standards was evidenced by rapidly
increasing rates of testing over the last 10 years. Take the growth of
NCSPearson, which scores about half of student tests nationwide: in 1990, NCS'
Performance Scoring Center in Iowa City scored 3.3 million student responses.
The number of tests scored climbed to 36 million in 1998 and 80 million in
Despite apparent consensus on the need for broader standards, only Rhode
Island and 16 other states adopted the New Standards philosophy and test in
1996, while others scattered in several directions. Some use only
multiple-choice tests, which have been attacked for testing surface knowledge,
rather than critical thinking, and thus for making it possible for teachers to
"teach to the test," thereby narrowing curriculum. The shortcomings of
multiple-choice tests are no secret, yet they remain popular, with 49 states
using them to some extent. "Multiple-choice assessment is still the most common
kind," says Linda Ann Bond, national assessment consultant for testing giant
CTB/McGraw-Hill. Why? "Because they're a cheap, thumbnail sketch," says
McWalters. "It's very American."
The good news is that, with several years of testing experience, assessments
seem to be diversifying, and most states now use multiple-choice sections in
combination with short answer, essay questions, and/or other performance
assessments. Plus, Bond insists, multiple-choice tests measure some skills very
well. For example, looking at two graphs and selecting one answer about the
correct interpretation, is not a survey of fact but of critical reasoning.
If multiple-choice tests were the sole controversy surrounding testing, the
brouhaha might not be so big. But shortly into the testing fever,
administrators and state leaders began linking single test scores to such large
consequences as a diploma or mandatory summer school attendance, thereby
championing standards, and making students and public schools "accountable" for
x years of taxpayers' money, if only rhetorically. And thus, gradually,
"accountability" replaced "standards" as the primary buzzword, thanks to the
joining in of politicians, and test scores became either merit badges or rap
sheets for schools chiefs -- Dr. Rudolph Crew was hired in New York City in
1995 with a well-known facility for raising test scores (as was Lam in
Providence), and Crew was fired in late 1999 after literacy scores seemed to
decline. A scoring mistake at CTB/McGraw Hill was eventually revealed, the
Times reported, but not before 9000 students were erroneously sent to
summer school, and five of the city's 32 superintendents were fired or eased
out. In Minnesota last year, 47,000 students received mistakenly low test
scores from NCS Pearson, costing some their high school diplomas, and others
their summer vacations.
Ironically enough, if New Standards or something like it was more widely
adopted, we might be able to depend less on standardized testing, because an A
in Rhode Island would hold up as an A in Alaska, and the goal of all of this --
more objective, consistent standards and assessment of American students and
education -- would have been achieved. Instead, the standards movement has
spawned an evil twin, as best summarized by the education component of George
W. Bush's first State of the Union address: "If a child can pass a reading
test, then they can read." In reality, as Simmons, Snider, and others note, the
sole fact of a child passing a reading test simply means the child can pass a
THE CHILDREN at Vartan Gregorian come from all over Providence. They are 44
percent Hispanic, 37 percent African-American, and 20 percent white. More than
a third speak English as a second language (ESL), and a full 80 percent receive
free or subsidized lunches. "We know testing is a necessary evil because of the
money, et cetera, tied up with it," says Connie Doyle, the school's director of
testing and curriculum. Test scores are not, Doyle insists, used to decide
whether a student is held back or advanced to the next grade level. "There's a
lot more a child is capable of doing besides a test," she says. Nevertheless,
testing is a big focus at Vartan Gregorian, especially this year, when ESL
students' test scores will be included in the average of Providence schools for
the first time. The worst part of this, says Doyle, will be parents' confusion
and dismay over the low scores. Under Bush's plan however, parent confusion
could be the least of the worries.
Bush is serious when he says accountability in public education necessitates
the linking of test scores with school funding. According to the education bill
recently passed by the House, the schools with the lowest test scores will
initially receive more money. But if scores do not rise sufficiently in a
four-year period, a school will have to reconstitute itself as a charter
school, hire a whole new staff, or the state will be required to take it over.
Such a scheme sounds menacing to Earnest Cox, principal of Nathan Bishop Middle
School on Providence's East Side, located in the shadow of Brown University's
football stadium. Scores on the state's New Standards assessment for Bishop's
largely Hispanic and African-American students, 94 percent of whom receive free
or subsidized lunch, have varied by as much as 100 percent from one year to the
next. "The purpose of the scores was to be descriptive -- they're not designed
to be punitive," Cox says. "What the federal government seems to headed for . .
. is making test scores punitive, not corrective."
Beyond a very real threat to funding, Rhode Island educators and officials
worry that Bush's bill, in requiring specific tests for grades three through
eight, could wipe out a decade's worth of assessment design and implementation
that has gained nationwide respect. Indeed, notes Phi Delta Kappan: "For
an example of a state accountability system that balances the public's need for
individual student and school-level results against the school's need for
support and a genuine measure of autonomy in achieving those results, I would
point readers to Rhode Island."
It's possible, of course, that the bill will be flexible enough to accept
Rhode Island and Providence's current tests. Some form of the National
Education Assessment Program -- which Rhode Island students currently take in
the fourth and eighth grades -- could be mandated, yet NEAP tests do not exist
for every grade level. But then there's concern about the attachment of federal
financial consequences to tests that were never meant to have such
consequences. Such a practice, notes fairtest.org, a Cambridge,
Massachusetts-based policy organization, "Could undermine NEAP's use as a
Finally, educators complain that the Bush's plan is wasteful -- given the
potential dedication of hundreds of millions of federal dollars to testing when
sufficient data about academic shortcomings is already available. "It's a
misappropriation of resources and time," Snider says, noting that a chunk of
the proposed 29 percent federal increase would be better spent on professional
IF PUBLIC EDUCATION in America is to survive and prosper, it must be able to
nurture students' abilities as well as private and parochial schools, and the
measure of this isn't likely to be based on future income brackets or Who's Who
lists, but on test scores. In other words, tests are not going away and no one
seems to think they should. But it seems almost equally self-evident, or at
least, widely agreed upon, that tests shouldn't have the current consequences
for student advancement, nor should they impact school funding in the future,
as Bush and his Republican allies desire.
Somewhat extreme interpretations of the scores-for-funding plan, as wafted
last fall in an article on Alternet, the alternative press clearinghouse,
suggest it's all a cloaked way of engendering support for school vouchers, or
for creating an underclass of minimum wage laborers who drop out of school
because of low test scores and believe they're not smart enough to do anything
Nevertheless, "accountability" is prevailing. At least on the surface, Bush's
plan has a certain charismatic appeal: American public education should be sent
to boot camp, with the result being a toned-up system and higher performing
students. Everyone wants such improvement, and Bush's rhetoric suggests he may
be willing to help pay for it. If he refuses to avoid the obvious pratfall of
hasty, poorly planned, high-stakes assessments, however, his goal of being the
education president will prove as legitimate as his daughter Jenna's fake ID.
Kathleen Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.