Published Online: October 6, 1999
Published in Print: October 6, 1999, as Letters

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Harder or Better? First, Do No Harm



To the Editor:

In reading Alfie Kohn's concerns about "Confusing Harder With Better," Sept. 15, 1999, I am reminded of the credo that every physician must abide by: First, do no harm.

I asked my physician daughter about this after reading Mr. Kohn's essay, and she said it means that you have to work hard not to make the patients worse than they were when they came to see you.

What worries me about all the rush to judgment based on standardized tests is that, as educators, we may well be defying the physician's credo and making our students worse, that we may indeed be actively (even though not purposely) doing harm.

Failing students and sending them to special and stigmatized classes can do a lot of harm as well as good. We want to do right by these students, so the first question still has to be keyed to the idea that we worry about "first doing no harm."

Dorothy Rich
Founder and President
Home and School Institute
Washington, D.C.


Texas Kindergarten Is Not Fully Funded

To the Editor:

Your article on Gov. George W. Bush's education policies ("Bush Record on Education Defies Labels," Sept. 22, 1999) incorrectly implied that the 1999 Texas legislature funded all-day kindergarten for all children in the state. What legislators finally approved was a $100 million-per-year grant program for school districts to create or expand kindergarten and prekindergarten in the next two years.

This is a laudable step, but not enough to ensure that all-day kindergarten will be offered to the 60,000 kids currently in half-day programs, or the 30,000 who are not even being reached by a half-day program.

Eva DeLuna-Castro
Center for Public Policy Priorities
Austin, Texas


States Will Repeal Tests' High Stakes

To the Editor:

If I may expand on the brief quote attributed to me in "Standards at Crossroads After Decade," Sept. 22, 1999, I did say that states are unlikely to stop their testing. What was not included in the story is that my organization, FairTest, firmly believes that parent and community action will force many states to repeal the high stakes attached to tests, much as the Wisconsin legislature has voted to do. We also think it is likely that many states will scale back their testing programs once they see the damage being done to educational quality and equity. That will leave much smaller and less coercive state testing programs.

In the late 1980s, when FairTest released "Fallout From the Testing Explosion," documenting the extent and consequences of standardized testing, a common response we received was that little would change. However, while 24 states had or planned to have high school graduation tests in 1990, by 1995 the number was down to 16. Simultaneously, many states drastically reduced the number of grades they tested. Real progress was at hand.

Unfortunately, the "standards" movement of the mid- to late 1990s stimulated another round of high-stakes testing. As FairTest and others have demonstrated, this effort has failed to show consistent improvement even as measured by independent standardized exams such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and is not likely to do so.

The high stakes and the narrowing of curriculum and instruction to fit the tests, both of which do most damage to low-income and minority-group students, coupled with the diminution of democratic participation in determining schools' curriculum and instruction, have fueled the rapidly developing backlash against test- driven "reform." How far this movement will go remains to be seen, but we expect it will make a significant impact in reducing testing and in forcing a reconsideration of assessment and accountability to go well beyond standardized test scores.

Monty Neill
Executive Director
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)
Cambridge, Mass.


'Civic Minded' Needs 'Policy Minded,' Too

To the Editor:

The "policy-minded" and "civic-minded" approaches to school change that Joseph P. McDonald discusses should be seen as complements, not alternatives ("The Trouble With Policy-Minded School Reform," Sept. 8, 1999).

In Texas, for example, our nonprofit organization, Just for the Kids, might be said to exemplify the civic-minded approach. We work locally with principals and campus leadership teams, training them to use their school data to establish communitywide agreement on the school's academic strengths, weaknesses, and priorities. We also visit and compare high- and average-performing schools to identify practices that are worth replicating.

Yet without the Texas policies on testing, accountability, and data availability, our efforts would be severely hampered. Relying on reputation alone without data to find high-performing schools, we would overidentify schools that benefit from their students' favorable demographics and underidentify schools in disadvantaged areas whose performance is well above average given the populations they serve.

The data picture we have developed showing each school's opportunity to improve has been an indispensable discussion-starter. Yet we could not have developed this picture if Texas didn't do the best job of any state of making it possible to link student-level data on current test scores, prior test scores, enrollment, demographics, and high school course completion.

In short, the "civic-minded" approach can work, but only if the "policy-minded" approach has made it possible to get good education data into the hands of educators, parents, and community leaders.

Chrys Dougherty
Director
School Information Project
Just for the Kids
Austin, Texas


SAT 'Strivers' Idea Extends Unfairness

To the Editor:

I was appalled to read your article "ETS Creating Demographic Index for SAT," Sept. 8, 1999. It seems like only yesterday that the test had to be recentered and then revised to guard against race and sex discrimination. Now, to account for the persistent gap in racial scores, the Educational Testing Service has the audacity to consider a "Strivers" program? As far as I'm concerned, the ETS has admitted that its test is neither valid nor ethical--and I never was impressed with its reliability.

The whole purpose of a standardized test is to "norm" knowledge. An individual's test score is then interpreted by comparing it with the scores obtained by others on the same test. Objectivity is the goal of standardized-test construction; the test-taker either knows the information or doesn't.

The only explanation I can think of for the chasm between minority students' and white students' test scores is that the test is only valid with one group. If this is so, then it should be used only with this group.

The ETS gets paid generously to provide a service to young adults of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, but its "product" is inherently flawed in concept and design. The only positive outcome likely from this so-called "Strivers" project will be inadvertent: It could serve as a wake-up call for college-admissions programs. We should boycott the ETS and give extra consideration to all students on an individual basis regardless of race. That is fair. The SAT and the "Strivers" concept are not.

Michael Fisher
Doctoral Candidate
University of Texas at El Paso
El Paso, Texas


Against Darwin, Yet Not Pro-Genesis

To the Editor:

Tom Bonnell's "One Misstep for Kansas; One Quantum Leap Backward for Its Students," Sept. 8, 1999, is excessively alarmist, as are most of the decrials of the Kansas board of education's decision regarding evolution. Charles Darwin's theory and its neo-Darwinian successor have no proven heuristic value, as convinced as the theory's partisans are of its self-evident truth.

While many opponents of the imposition of the Darwinian explanation of the mechanism of biodiversity (and the origin of life) may be Christians who interpret the Book of Genesis literally, many, like myself, are not. One has to get rid of an "Inherit the Wind" mind-set to understand the real issues involved.

Darwinism asserts a mechanism of evolution completely unproven by scientific evidence. Only relatively insignificant changes within species have been shown to develop in nature, one of the most distinctive being Darwin's own observation of finch-beak variations. The invalidity of Stanley Miller's "primordial soup" demonstration, the patent falsehood (now recognized) of the "Evolution of the Horse" exhibit of Chicago's Field Museum, the true irrelevance of the classic textbook example of the peppered moths of the English Midland forests--all highlight the wishful but impoverished thinking of the Darwinians.

The deleterious effects of all natural or induced mutations, the limits of selective breeding, the lack of fossil evidence showing intermediaries, and the monumental recent discoveries of microbiology, genetics, and embryology all point to an explanation different in kind from the increasingly more Ptolemaic-like explanations of the Darwinians. The openness that the Kansas decision allows is more likely to create the wonder that leads young people into science than vice versa.

The Darwinians may be right about some small things, but the fundamentalists are right about some big things.

Joseph W. McPherson
Provost
The Heights School
Potomac, Md.


Reading Myth? Disputing California's Whole-Language Decline

To the Editor:

The role of whole-language instruction in California's supposed decline in reading has reached the status of urban myth, a myth that Jerry Jesness' Commentary, "Ballast in the Battleships of the Reading Wars," Sept. 22, 1999, has perpetuated. Mr. Jesness claims that whole language was responsible for plunging California "into the national cellar."

Here are the facts. There has been no significant decline in reading in California since "whole language" (actually literature-based language arts) was introduced in 1987. The evidence can be found in Jeff McQuillan's book The Literacy Crisis: False Claims and Real Solutions (Heinemann).

Mr. McQuillan also notes that California's school libraries are the worst in the nation, California's public libraries are among the worst (public-library funding has been cut significantly since 1987), and California's child-poverty rate rose by 25 percent between 1989 and 1993. All this means less access to books, a factor known to relate to reading scores.

Mr. McQuillan calculated that California ranked 40th out of 42 states in access to print (composite of school library, public library, and print at home). For the 42 states that took the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test, rankings in access to print and NAEP reading were strongly correlated (r=.85).

California's low reading scores are not related to whole-language instruction. They are a result of the fact that California offers children little access to books.

Stephen Krashen
Rossier School of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

Vol. 19, Issue 6, Pages 52-53

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