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E.D. Will Prepare 'Consumer Guide' on Standardized Tests

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Washington--Education Department officials pledged last week to develop a "consumer guide" to nationally normed standardized tests that would better enable parents and school administrators to interpret their results.

Emerging from a three-and-a-half-hour, closed-door session with test makers and scholars in the field, Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, said he was "concerned about the adequacy of consumer information in testing."

"Test makers make tests that people want to buy and use," he said. "Us4ers are not sophisticated in testing. People getting test data aren't given, or aren't able to understand, or don't bother to understand" the results.

An 'Authentic' Problem

Mr. Finn said he did not yet know what form the new guide might take, but suggested it could be a pamphlet similar to "What Works," the department's 1986 booklet on effective schooling.

Several participants at the meeting, however, said that because of the problem's complexity the proposed consumer guide was an inadequate solution.

"Trying to inform parents about tests is a total waste of time," said John Jacob Cannell, the Beckley, W.Va., physician who founded Friends for Education, a group whose December report on such tests had prompted the meeting. (See Education Week, Feb. 10, 1988.)

The report challenged the accuracy of standardized tests by showing that the overwhelming majority of elementary-school students scored above national averages.

According to Mr. Finn, participants at the Education Department meeting agreed that the report had "identified an authentic problem in American education."

"Testing and the feedback apparatus tend to give a lot of people a misleading impression of the actual conel10ldition of education in their kids' schools," he said. "I didn't hear a soul say [the report] erred in the wrong direction."

But participants cited several causes for the phenomenon, he added.

"This wasn't a bash-the-test-publishers session," Mr. Finn said. "Nor was it a bash-the-teachers session. Everybody deserved a few bashes, and everybody got a few."

'Inflated Results'

Dr. Cannell said that, rather than producing a pamphlet to explain testing, the Education Department should replicate his study annually and report state and district test results to the nation. That would put pressure on test publishers and administrators to provide accurate information, he said.

R. Bruce McGill, president of the Educational Records Bureau, a nonprofit test publisher, agreed that the proposed guide "doesn't address the problem."

The test companies "are the creators of the problem," he said. "They provide schools with tests that do give inflated results."

But a publisher of two of the most widely used standardized tests said he welcomed the consumer-guide proposal. If properly understood, tests are useful instruments, said David Deffley, general manager of ctb/McGraw-Hill.

"The tests tell what a person knows in relation to something else," he said. "They also provide information for teachers about where to put resources. Without testing, I don't know what they'd use."

High Stakes

Participants said the prevalence of high test scores was likely to persistdespite the department's consumer-information effort, due in part to state pressures to use test scores as a measure of school quality.

"It's a problem of how the tests are used," said Daniel Koretz, senior social scientist with the rand Corporation. "If you take one measure of how kids are learning, and make the stakes high enough, scores go up higher than they ought to."

To make scores rise, administrators tailor their curriculum to the test, or teachers teach particular items, he said.

Mr. Deffley of McGraw-Hill suggested, however, that the "ethical" form of teaching to the test--curricular alignment--is a good thing.

"These are basic-skills tests," he said. "They are testing things students should be learning in elementary school."

But teaching particular test items, he agreed, "is not good."

"That's a form of cheating," he said.

To determine the extent to which such practices exist, Mr. McGill of the Educational Records Bureau said, the department should reconvene the group at a later date and invite school administrators to that meeting.

"The department should create a task force of practitioners, rather than theoreticians," he said. "We need to know what tests do and what people do with them."

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