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It's About Teaching And Learning--Not Testing

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In decades past, television and radio stations ran this public service announcement: "It's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your children are?" As we approach the new millennium, we should revisit this PSA, asking parents and educators a slightly different question: "It's 9 a.m. Do you know how your children are doing in school?"

As important as it is to know where our children are after school, we must also know how they are doing in school.

Contrary to popular belief, a student's report card or standardized-test scores may not accurately represent how he or she is doing in school.

Critics of the voluntary national tests also claim that public education is the responsibility of the states, not the federal government, and that it is states' rightful role to develop standards and assessments to support student learning. I wholeheartedly agree. The seminal question that states must address is how they define "challenging" and "rigorous." These two words should not have a variety of definitions. Would it not make sense to have a national and international benchmark against which 50 states--individually and collectively--can assess the extent to which students meet challenging learning outcomes? After all, reading is reading and math is math, regardless of where it is being taught. The voluntary national tests are tools that districts and states should be given the opportunity to use to measure whether their students are meeting challenging standards.

Unless there is a rigorous benchmark against which states can accurately gauge what their students know and how well they know it, states will never really understand how high they have "raised the bar" for student achievement. This challenge can be met by utilizing NAEP standards, which the president is recommending as the national barometer.

AEP has been used for 28 years to assess a random, stratified population of America's students on achievement in reading and math. It is recognized and accepted by educators, researchers, and evaluation experts as a rigorous, valid, and reliable assessment of student progress. The voluntary national tests will be developed in accordance with the content and performance standards embedded in the NAEP 4th grade reading and 8th grade math assessments. Therefore, states, districts, schools, teachers, parents, and students will be able to assess student progress against other 4th graders nationally in reading, and 8th graders nationally and internationally in mathematics. Also, states can objectively and realistically determine how high their "achievement bars" measure up to world-class standards.

The voluntary national tests are not an attempt at federal intrusion into the schools, as critics charge. First and foremost, voluntary means voluntary. States and local districts will determine whether or not they participate. And the federal government will not be involved in the development and administration of the tests. These tasks will be determined by the National Assessment Governing Board, a group of 26 independent individuals--not federal employees--that also oversees NAEP. Furthermore, the federal government will not collect information on individual students.

Within 45 days of test administration, educators and parents will receive detailed information about students' performance on the tests, including an item-by-item analysis that will further enhance the teaching-learning process.

A new form of the test will be developed by the test contractor each year. NAEP will place the "old test" on the Internet within 45 days of administration. So students, parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents can review the test's individual questions and answers. The availability of an item analysis of this type can be a useful tool for states, districts, schools, and classrooms to collectively and individually assess instructional strengths and address learning weaknesses. In turn, this becomes an even more powerful tool for teachers, students, and parents in determining student progress.

Many states and districts are in the process of aligning their assessments to their standards. The national tests will serve to supplement such efforts and validate results of student achievement. In effect, states and districts can use the voluntary testing initiative to take an additional and more comprehensive snapshot of student progress through both a national and international lens.

Critics of the voluntary national tests say it is unfair to expect students from lower socioeconomic school districts to do well on a rigorous test until they have all of the necessary material and personnel resources. While I respect and understand this, as a former educator with more than 37 years of experience in education at all levels, I believe we do a greater disservice to students in these communities by holding them accountable to a lower set of standards while they wait for the resources to arrive. With this waiting-period mentality, many districts and schools try to explain away poor students' performance. Securing the best resources for classrooms is important, but even more important are high expectations and a commitment to excellence for all. The ultimate irony in this continuing discourse is that, even if suddenly the resources became available, the critical issue would remain: resources to learn what?

The new millennium will require a highly educated citizenry and workforce. As a nation, we cannot afford to leave even one student behind. The urgency of this national imperative is captured in a closing scene of the movie "Apollo 13," when the flight commander cogently warns the crew of a damaged space capsule, "You have one hour to build a filter, and failure is not an option."

Failure is not an option for America's schools. But, as a nation, we have a dilemma. Simultaneously and to varying degrees, all 50 states and a majority of our 15,000 school districts are engaged in defining academic success and failure. In effect, the assessment of student progress is in the eyes of a multitude of beholders; one state or district's idea of success may be another state or district's lament over failure.

Until there is a national resolve to articulate a vision of what students must know and be able to do in the core academic subjects of reading and math, parents, teachers, students, school boards, and communities will only have access to a state and local interpretation of student progress. Often, this limited view of reality hinders the potential to improve the teaching-learning process.

Without question, there are examples throughout the nation's schools of high-quality assessment and challenging academic standards. But if we are committed to academic success for all students, we cannot be content with the celebration of victory gardens when what is truly needed is a commitment to amber waves of grain. Voluntary national tests represent tools that can help us reap the harvest of equity and excellence in our schools.


Gerald N. Tirozzi is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.

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