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By All Measures: 'Let Them Eat Tests'

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Governor Romer's National Council on Education Standards and Testing should have held its deliberations in a Chicago elementary school I visited recently. Outdated science books in the school's tiny library tell us that some day men will walk on the moon. Overcrowding has made the cafeteria a huge noisy classroom, and the new "cafeteria'' is a long, darkened basement hallway crammed with tables. Chicago's central board of education mandated a 90 percent cut in the school's supply budget this year, forcing the school to ask children to B.Y.O.T.P.--bring your own toilet paper.

Had Governor Romer and his colleagues been forced to B.Y.O.T.P. to their deliberations, they might have expanded their stunted proposal for bringing our nation's schools up to "world class'' standards, which is now being considered by the Congress. They might have recognized how cruel it is to recommend the fast-track development of a national examination system, but to reject the idea that we must have national standards for the schools and school systems that will prepare children to pass these tests. This cruel hoax diverts attention from the drastic changes in organization, practices, and funding needed to make world-class standards more than an empty slogan.

Advocates for at-risk students already have abundant evidence that testing programs alone do not "drive'' school improvement and student achievement. In Chicago, the public has been told year after year that 70 percent of students fall below national norms and that 40 percent of 9th graders fail two or more courses. The major result has been to reinforce the view that Chicago's children are, as one former Chicago school official put it, "Rejects. Children of a lesser god.''

Nor are we captivated by claims made for a largely unproven set of "authentic'' approaches to assessment. As the National Council's own assessment task force concluded, there is no evidence that these experimental tests will be fairer for at-risk students, particularly when high stakes are attached to them.

Advocates for at-risk students know that all children can meet high standards, but only if the reform agenda meets the blatant deficiencies of U.S. schools head-on.

I support the development of national standards for students, teachers, schools, and school systems--all at the same time. We need a historic national dialogue about the full content of the needed standards and how they can be achieved day-to-day in all our schools for all our children.

I oppose the development of a national examination system disconnected from this dialogue. New approaches to student assessment will be constructive only if they are considered on an equal level with such hard issues as changing teacher expectations for at-risk students, principal accountability, tracking, teaching culturally diverse classrooms, parents' roles in school decisionmaking and aiding their children's learning, support services for children, and the suitable funding for schools.

Otherwise, vulnerable students will be required to pass tests with no proof that their teachers are prepared to teach the necessary skills or could even pass the tests themselves. Our children will aim to become number one in science, although many urban schools lack science labs. U.S. children will be expected to best German students, who have universal access to early-childhood education and health services that our children lack.

Our children's minds will not be nourished by the stunted reform plan of the Romer Council--which says, in effect, "Let them eat new-improved tests.'' Congressional approval of this plan will add to the Congress's reputation for choosing symbolism over substance. We seek a commitment to a national school-restructuring campaign that pursues world-class standards with a world-class vision of what must be done.

Donald R. Moore is the executive director of Designs for Change in Chicago, and a member of the board of directors of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.

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