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Published in Print: March 1, 1999, as Perspective


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We're getting tough now. The consistently dismal student scores on state and national standardized tests are producing widespread embarrassment and anxiety. No matter what states do, the scores don't seem to rise much, and in some places they've actually gotten worse. Frustrated at the lack of progress, policymakers are decreeing that teachers have to teach better and students have to learn more—i.e., score higher—or they will be punished. Half the states apply sanctions to schools whose students fail to meet minimum test standards. In 19 states, students must pass an exit exam to graduate from high school; in six others, student promotion is linked to test scores. The situation has become so desperate that President Clinton, in his State of the Union address, demanded an end to social promotions and promised to link future federal funding to school performance.

  • One in five American kids lives in poverty; the correlation between poverty and school failure is well-established.
  • Inequities in school funding create enormous disparities in the opportunities for kids to learn. Indeed, the quality of education that children receive depends largely on where kids live and their parents' incomes.
  • The way we prepare, induct, and support teachers virtually ensures that the quality of teaching will be deficient.
  • Schools do not teach in the way children learn. The archaic and irrational structure of schools defies what we know about effective organizations and management and what we have learned from cognitive development research.

Addressing these problems is hard and costly, so we don't do much about them. Instead, we hope higher standards and tough exams will do the job.

And they might—at least in part. High standards for all children are essential because kids respond to our expectations. Performance-based tests are necessary to monitor the progress of students and schools. A big, complex system like public education probably wouldn't work without a means to establish clear lines of responsibility. But until we get explicit, reasonable standards and fair, workable assessments, we should not be punishing students and teachers.

We have a long way to go and a great deal of work to do before we have a standards-based system that is likely to achieve its paramount goal of improved student learning. The very tests that we are now so obsessed with reveal how far we have to go. The majority of students are not reading proficiently by the time they get to high school; many, certainly, are not reading well enough to meet the higher standards. Our major urban districts are rife with schools in which the majority of kids lack even the most basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills.

To hold the millions of young people already in the educational pipeline responsible for meeting new high standards is to place them in double jeopardy. The system has failed to educate them, and now it wants to punish them for not being educated. Demanding an end to social promotion is a euphemism for flunking kids and making them repeat all over again what they didn't or couldn't do the first time. Research shows that this practice does more harm than good.

If we attach high stakes to tests prematurely, significant numbers of students will be held back or not graduate. This is not only unfair to the kids, but it also would probably generate a backlash among parents and the public that could undermine the standards movement before it has time to succeed. Policymakers should focus on building a fair, sensible standards-based system that works, which will take considerable effort and time. Until then, their top priority should be making sure that all kids can read and write proficiently—preferably by the 3rd grade, but certainly before they graduate from high school.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 10, Issue 6, Page 6

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