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Article's 'Unimportant' Tests Not Really So, Says Author

To the Editor:

In a "Research Notes" item entitled "Testing 1, 2, 3," you summarized a research article of mine on the relative amount of student testing across countries. Unfortunately, one passage of my article was taken out of context and, as a consequence, conveys a meaning I had not intended.

The passage reads, "Our [U.S.] students face the lowest amount of high-stakes, mandated, and criterion-referenced testing in the world. Instead, our students face a plethora of......well...unimportant tests."

My use of the term "unimportant" referred to the use of the phrase "important test" two paragraphs earlier, meaning, essentially, a high-stakes test, one considered to be important by students. This definition of the term is employed by some opponents of high-stakes testing. By using the term the way they do, I was trying to make two points: First, by comparison with their counterparts overseas, U.S. students face a relative abundance of low- or no-stakes standardized tests; and, second, if one defines "important tests" to be high-stakes tests and opposes their use, one is left with the alternative of giving students what one must, by extension, define to be "unimportant" tests.

I did not intend to assert that I, personally, believe that low- or no-stakes, unmandated tests, or norm-referenced tests are unimportant, in the regular sense of the term. Quite the contrary, I believe that such tests can be very useful, important contributors to monitoring students' development and diagnosing their learning difficulties. I believe that responsible educators decide to use such tests for constructive reasons and would not bother with them otherwise. I also believe that the educators who develop such tests are doing important and beneficial work, work for which I feel a great deal of respect.

Your writer is a perceptive, insightful reader of research and a very capable reporter. If there was a misunderstanding of my meaning in this particular passage of my article, it must be because my allusions were too obscure. In making the point the way I did, I was trying to express irony. But lost in my quest for extra cleverness and subtlety, I neglected to see how others might easily interpret the passage differently.

Incidentally, this discussion of the relative worth of different tests and the relative amounts of testing across countries begs another question: Should U.S. students see the same amount of systemwide testing as their counterparts overseas? Or are there reasons why they should see more or less testing? The answer may well be that U.S. students should see more testing simply because we have a federal system of governance (i.e., we don't have a unified, completely integrated education governance structure). For example, even if all the U.S. states employed statewide high-stakes examinations tied to state standards, there would remain a need for separate, norm-referenced tests: to compare students to national norms; and to gather information about a student's progress more frequently than the relatively infrequent high-stakes tests would allow.

Richard P. Phelps
Washington, D.C.

'Naive Vocationalism' Called a True 'Assassin'

To the Editor:

A. Graham Down's "Three Assassins of Excellence"(Oct. 2, 1996) is right on the money.

After over 30 years of teaching in public and private schools, I can testify that inequalities, vague, politicized standards, and creeping vocationalism have undermined--with the termite's efficiency--every kind of excellence in our secondary schools.

Now that I enjoy the control of presiding over an independent school with a tight academic focus, I continue to be amazed at the power of naive vocationalism to distract people who ought to know better from the core agenda of raising up competent thinkers and citizens.

Naive vocationalism presents itself most frequently these days in a misguided enthusiasm for training in technology, as if technology should command thought rather than act as its handmaiden.

Students who master the deeply creative and critical language abilities developed through learning to read, to write, to discuss, and to think don't require John Henry Newman's reminder to know that "the best vocational education is a liberal education." They become, in a phrase from Mr. Down that will resonate in any employer's mind, "able to think critically and accept ambiguity as the norm rather than the exception."

Bruce E. Buxton
Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.

Hugh Calkins Responds On School Voucher Issue

To the Editor:

Edd Doerr, the executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty, finds my middle position on school vouchers "naive" and "curious." ("Letters," Oct. 2, 1996.) Since I do not think either adjective applies, I would like to explain why.

Mr. Doerr acknowledges that I appear to understand the numerous objections to a full-blown voucher plan. The difference between us is the selection of the trench from which we will resist such plans.

Like many other professionals in the religious-liberty field, Mr. Doerr has selected the "no vouchers, ever" trench. I suggest to him and others who agree with him that they reflect upon the apparent success of President Clinton's political strategy in recent months. Republicans charge him, with some justification, with stealing their ideas. But the result of his accommodation of the strongest and most valid criticisms of the welfare state is that he seems to have captured the central position which will determine the election.

This same logic applies to vouchers. Their proponents have in recent years attempted to sell them by pointing out their value to children in failing school districts. A trial court in Ohio has recently found constitutional a voucher plan limited to Cleveland, a failing district, on grounds that would validate "full-blown" plans as well. Is it wiser, as Mr. Doerr believes, to support religious liberty by opposing vouchers even in failing districts? Or, as I believe, by conceding their value and validity in failing districts, and resisting their introduction elsewhere?

Mr. Clinton's recent strategy suggests that the latter is the wiser course.

Hugh Calkins
Cleveland, Ohio

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