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Testing, Testiness, and a Test of Will

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The real questions about national exams are not the political ones.

Something rather remarkable happened in Washington during the dying days of summer: National testing moved from the realm of the esoteric into the Oval Office, the U.S. House speaker's oratory, and the news-talk shows.

It is a sign of our national prosperity that an issue as narrow as a voluntary national exam, to be given to a couple of grades of children, could command that kind of attention. While some feel the attention is good for education, others wish that politicians would focus on something more consequential.

It is important to separate politics from reality. National tests are popular with the public. A majority of Americans, when polled, think national tests are a dandy idea. President Clinton did not become re-elected by ignoring the polls. But many remain skeptical.

Ironically, opposition to the tests of 4th grade reading and 8th grade math proposed by Mr. Clinton is something that has united the right and the left. Conservatives oppose the tests because they view them as an example of intrusive government and don't trust those who might design them. Liberals worry about whether the tests might hurt poor children by branding them and limiting their futures, and they worry about the impact of a test given only in English to a national student body increasingly made up of children with limited proficiency in English.

My own organization representing school administrators has had a rather significant internal debate on the wisdom and cost-effectiveness of such tests. Other national education groups have been pulled into the fray. An endorsement has become a litmus test of whether you support the current administration or not. It raises an interesting question: Should one support all the educational initiatives of a pro-education administration, even the misguided ones?

It is important to remember that to support a national test does not necessarily mean that you are insensitive to the needs of poor children and that to oppose the test does not necessarily mean you object to accountability.

The real questions to ask are not the political ones. They are the ones of reason. Why do we need a national test? Will it improve learning? A colleague, who was raised on a ranch in Wyoming, once pointed out to me that they could never fatten the cattle by weighing them. They had to feed them. That leads to the questions we ought to ask about the national test.

(1.) Why give such a test? Aren't we "weighing" our children a lot already? American students are the most tested in the world by teachers, local board requirements and state mandate (42 at last count), and college admissions. What we don't have is a coherent system of testing for accountability and to diagnose learning difficulty. What we have is a patchwork, and some fear these new tests will be merely one more panel in the quilt. Maybe students would earn better scores if we traded some of the testing time for teaching time.

It will take a national test of will to deal with the inequities that children face and that inevitably hold them back from reaching their full potential.

(2.) What about accountability? If we fight a national test, aren't we just trying to avoid telling the public how badly we are doing? Won't we appear defensive? The problem here is whether a "voluntary" test that is not "required" is one that will hold everyone--states, districts, schools, teachers, parents, and students--accountable. Furthermore, since there is no national curriculum (let alone standards for providing equal opportunity to learn it), for what would everyone be held accountable?

(3.) Don't we need a test to measure our progress? I would raise a counterquestion: Will the results really show us that? In fact, will they really surprise us? We know from tons of previous tests that kids living and going to school in affluent communities will do well. Those in poor communities will not. Will national tests tell us anything different? More important, will they tell us what to do about all this? If the cattle aren't getting fatter, is it because there isn't enough food? Maybe the cows can't get to the food or digest it properly. Maybe the cows don't like the food they're being given. It seems to me that finding out the answers at that level is much more important than finding out whether my cow is fatter than yours.

(4.) Won't the tests push us toward a national commitment to equalized opportunity? A better question might be: Has anything since A Nation at Risk pushed us toward a commitment to equalized opportunity? Haven't we known for some time which kids need more help? Have they gotten it? What is so different about this initiative that will change that reality?

(5.) Are we clear that this particular test passes the "smell" test? Do we know what will be tested? How much will it really cost? (Estimates range up to $100 million a year.) Who will bear those costs in future years? What about non-English-speaking students? Is the test valid and reliable?

The fact is that if you work in schools that serve children from comfortable surroundings, you can have some marginal impact on adding value to what they bring to school. The many really good schools in middle-class communities do that. The mediocre ones don't have much impact one way or the other. The bad ones, and there are few really bad schools in middle-class communities because they are not tolerated (it doesn't take a national test for parents to figure that out), provide really fine baby-sitting services.

If you work with kids from more-desperate communities, you can sometimes make a huge difference through heroic action. We have schools scattered across the country doing just that. Others that don't have enough good leadership, enough teachers who care, enough parents who can support the endeavor, and enough resources to offset the problems the kids carry with them to school in their sociological backpacks, fail--some miserably.

That is the dirty little secret that anyone working in schools knows and the one that policymakers wish to ignore because addressing it will require far more than a national test. It will take a national test of will to deal with the inequities that children face and that inevitably hold them back from reaching their potential. Now that would be a test worth taking.


Paul Houston is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, located in Arlington, Va.

Web Only

Web Resources
  • Voluntary National Tests, from the U.S. Department of Education, explains this initiative and provides draft materials on both the 4th grade reading test and 8th grade math test.
  • Read Richard W. Riley's testimony on voluntary national tests for reading and math, given at an April 29, 1997, hearing of U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families.
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