Tinkering With Tests Is No Answer To the Problems of the Classroom

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"What's in a name?" mused Juliet, adding that aroma is not affected by nomenclature. But Iago had a different view: "Who steals my purse steals trash ... but he that filches from me my good name. ..."

The issue of names has surfaced in a surprisingly serious way in the current debate on how to remedy what many now regard as a crisis in the quality of American secondary-school education. This is a crisis whose causes and dimensions are currently the subject of some dozen major inquiries, including a commission appointed by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.

Even while these investigations are under way, however, we are told that the issue is simple, and the solution even simpler.

The notion, recently advanced by Christopher Jencks and James Crouse, is that somehow by renaming or changing the tests that colleges use to help them make admissions decisions, students would be persuaded to study harder and schools to demand more of them.

The proposal is based on the assumption that students and parents think you don't have to work at developing the verbal and mathematical reasoning skills measured by the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) of the College Board, because (a) the skills are not taught as specific subjects in school, and (b) the test is called an "aptitude" test, which they incorrectly believe means some natural endowment. Dropping the word "aptitude" is supposed to eliminate this misunderstanding and create greater incentive for students to take school work more seriously.

The proponents of this approach also suggest that the nation's most selective colleges should exert further leverage on high schools by requiring more tests of achievement on academic subjects, instead of the SAT, and thereby somehow force the high schools to teach academic subject matter more intensively.

These proposals are unacceptable not only because they are superficial responses to a deep-seated problem, but because they represent an effort to manipulate the American classroom indirectly by tinkering with the tests. Such central manipulation is foreign to the American way, which from its very beginnings has considered education a local prerogative and responsibility. It is, moreover, totally at variance with the proper relationship between education and testing, and the College Board rejects it outright. Tests should not dictate what is taught in the classroom, but in the case of admissions, tests should measure the degree of subject mastery or skill development as an aid to estimating readiness for college. They should certainly not be used to coerce American schools, no matter how pressing the problems or laudable the intent.

What then does the Board suggest? Our answer is shaped by the Board's history and composition as a national association of 2,500 schools and colleges that for the past 82 years has sought to assess educational needs systematically and to respond to them through cooperative effort. It is also conditioned by the fact that our association's primary concern is the transition of students from school to college, a critical but by no means all-embracing phase in the educational process.

First, we need a clear and actionable statement, widely supported by all who are concerned with the problem of educational quality, of what all students need to know and to know how to do in order to succeed in college. Such an agreement preceded the development of the first uniform college-admissions test in this nation by the College Board in 1900 (it was, in fact, an achievement test; the SAT was developed later to further democratize educational opportunity). For most of the first half of this century, that agreement provided a model for the academic or college-prep curriculum of most high schools, which in turn influenced the content of the other programs in those schools. Overtaken and obscured by the events of the past 30 years, the agreement needs to be renewed in terms appropriate for the rest of this century and beyond.

This renewal will not solve the problem of educational quality, but it will provide a framework within which the central academic mission of the high school can be addressed directly, not indirectly by manipulation. It in turn will provide a platform from which other aspects of the schools' educational mission can be addressed.

Nor is it something which can or should be imposed from the outside or from above by some authoritarian body. The College Board believes that it should emerge as a consensus of all of the parties to the educational process, for its implementation, like any real reform in our educational system, will depend on local and often individual initiatives in every classroom, school, district, and state. This is the American way of education.

In order to begin, the College Board has sought the participation of hundreds of school and college educators, lay people concerned with education, and curriculum and subject-matter specialists to draft a new statement of "Preferred Patterns of Preparation" for college in the 1980s and beyond.

The "Patterns" fall into two broad categories: Basic Academic Competencies, or skills that a student should possess in order to succeed in college, and Academic Learning Outcomes, or the specific subject-matter knowledge that a student should have to succeed in college.

After a year of widespread discussion, the Basic Academic Competencies were published and widely disseminated in 1981. The Academic Learning Outcomes have been developed over the past year and will be published this fall. Next the College Board will turn its efforts to helping individual schools and colleges, and groups of school and college educators, to use these statements in working together and with public officials, board members, parents and taxpayers, and employers, to improve educational quality. The aim is to develop programs which will equip all students--not just an intellectual or economic elite--with the competencies and learning outcomes where they are not already being provided.

This will not be a quick fix. The College Board is committing a substantial part of its resources--$1.5 million in the past two years--to this effort, and expects to spend 10 years in seeing it through. It also is not something the Board can accomplish on its own, either financially or by sole mandate.

It can provide a catalyst for the efforts of many other organizations, institutions, and individuals whose efforts are required to accomplish the common goal.

The objective is not so much a quantum increase in the resources devoted to education as a pervasive and active reordering of the way the American people deploy the substantial resources they now devote to this essential activity.

Through this kind of nationwide, grassroots activity we believe that substantial progress can be made in improving the educational product and in addressing the persistent need to expand opportunities for young people of all ethnic, economic, and geographic backgrounds in this country.

Not through name changing, manipulation, or any similarly tempting but superficial and cosmetic approaches. The name is not the game.

Vol. 01, Issue 41, Page 20

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