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Tests Don't Help Teachers Teach, Officials Argue

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Boulder, Colo-- Standardized tests, which have become a primary preoccupation of states and school systems eager to prove the effectiveness of their educational activities to a skeptical public, are the focus of growing criticism even by the people who design and administer them.

The tests often fail to provide teachers with information they can use to improve the schoolwork of the students who are tested. And the pervasive use of so-called "minimum-basic-skills" tests in particular has tended to depress the quality and vitality of the educational process itself.

These and other criticisms of testing were aired last week by some of the 225 people gathered here for the twelfth annual Conference on Large-Scale Assessment, a meeting co-sponsored by the Education Commission of the States (ecs) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (naep).

The subject of the tests' value and purpose was discussed in a number of the 41 formal sessions at the conference.

"Most standardized tests are by and large ceremonious, and are of very little use in [the] diagnosis [of a student's academic weaknesses]," said Edys Quellmalz of the Center for the Study of Evaluation, a research center funded by the National Institute of Education that scrutinizes the quality of tests used in schools.

Said Ralph W. Tyler, former chairman of the department of education at the University of Chicago and a founder of the naep: "What we have are basically classification tests, which are valuable to institutions--such as school districts--but not [to] students or teachers."

Minimum-Basic-Skills Tests

Many here singled out as a principal source of this situation the minimum-basic-skills tests that have been adopted by many states within the last five or six years in an effort to respond to the public's demand for "accountability" in public schools.

"There is a nationwide demand for simplistic answers [to the problems facing schools]," said Nelson Noggle, a former test developer who has also evaluated the effectiveness of federally mandated education programs. "These tests do not ask how well our kids are learning, but how did we do on a simple test compared to last year."

"Minimum-competency exams test a narrow range of skills and they do not result in a better instructional system [in the classroom]," added Marilyn Averill, a member of the testing staff in the Boulder Valley Schools in Colorado.

Several of the conference participants, most of whom are responsible for designing and administering assessments of students and teachers at the state and local level, expressed frustration at being forced to create basic-skills tests by policymakers who are under public pressure to be "accountable"--especially since they feel such tests offer little information about the overall achievement of a student.

Jack G. Schmidt, a member of the National Assessment staff, offered another reason for the failure of standardized tests to help the classroom teacher identify accurately the academic weaknesses in their students.

"There is clearly a gap," he said, "between what's being taught and what's being tested; they [states and schools districts] are not testing what they are teaching."

While minimum-competency testing still seems to have strong support among the public and many education policymakers, New Jersey, having declared its basic-skills program a "success," will end its minimum competency-testing program at the end of this month and in 1984 will begin using a new statewide examination that will test a wider range of academic skills.

Stephen Koffler, director of evaluation in New Jersey, said that school districts in the state "are not getting much useful information from the [$600,000-a-year or $1.50-per-student] basic-skills testing program" anymore because high scores on the tests statewide suggest that New Jersey students now are learning basic skills.

By deciding to introduce a new statewide test that will evaluate a wider variety of academic skills, New Jersey is adopting a testing policy that is closer to the one it abandoned in 1976 when it began the basic-skills testing program.

Programs Developed

New Jersey was one of approximately 35 states that developed testing programs in the early 1970's to measure students' achievements in a variety of subjects. The New Jersey achievement-testing program, like those in the other states, was modeled after the naep

However, when the mimimum-competency-testing movement swept through the state in the mid-1970's, the programs that sought a more complete picture of the range of a student's achievements were abandoned because states could not afford to pay for both these and basic-skills testing, according to Mr. Koffler.

But, while several testing officials at the meeting asserted that "the new buzzword in testing is 'excellence',"--at least within the testing community--there was a general consensus that only when policymakers such as state legislators or state boards of education begin to abandon the minimum-basic-skills "mentality" will more states follow New Jersey's lead.

Participants at the meeting did not see this shift in attitude taking place in the immediate future.

Ray S. Smith Jr., chairman of the Akansas House education committee and the only state legislator at the meeting, acknowledged that "testing for excellence has not received the full attention it should have.'' But he defended the minimum-competency-testing movement, saying "[schools] should have never have put us [state legislatures and other policymakers] in a position where we had to require minimum-basic-skills tests. All we did was get the information on [basic-skills achievement], the hard way."

Other issues considered at the meeting included the need for testing experts to play a more active role in preventing the public and the press from overemphasizing--and thus distorting--the meaning of test scores and the legal problems associated with the testing of teachers and the handicapped. Other sessions dealt with technical aspects of test development, administration, and scoring.

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