Education

Coalition Implores Bush, Governors To Avoid Use of Standardized Tests

By Robert Rothman — January 31, 1990 4 min read
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Washington--Charging that an emphasis on multiple-choice tests could “undermine many of the educational reforms which the governors and President Bush wish to achieve,” a coalition of three dozen education and civil-rights groups last week urged those leaders to use alternative forms of assessment to measure progress toward national goals.

In a statement released here, the groups asserted that “standardized, multiple-choice tests are not an adequate means to measure educational progress, nor are high test scores an appropriate educational goal.”

“Other, educationally sound means of evaluation exist,” the statement continues, “and can provide a basis for improving teaching, informing the public, and measuring progress, thereby providing genuine accountability.”

The groups urged the governors to “set a timetable” for phasing out their states’ existing standardized tests and replacing them with alternatives.

In the meantime, they proposed, states should reduce their reliance on multiple-choice tests “as much and as quickly as possible.”

A. Graham Down, executive director of the Council for Basic Education, one of the groups in the coalition, acknowledged that a switch to new forms of assessment would be costly.

“Excellence costs money,” he said at a press conference here. “This money must be found.”

But Gregory R. Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service, responded in a statement that standardized testing remains an economical form of determining at least some of what students know and can do.

“Given all the challenges ahead of us in educational reform, we need all available resources and methodologies to help keep track of student achievement,” said Mr. Anrig, who declined to endorse the document.

Michael Cohen, director of education programs for the National Governors’ Association, said that the governors are sympathetic to the idea of alternative assessment, but that they are not sure they are ready to abandon standardized tests.

Sending ‘a Message’

In addition to the CBE, signers of the “Statement on Genuine Accountability” include such groups as the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National PTA, and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

The statement was also signed by several prominent education researchers, including Howard Gardner, co-director of Harvard University’s Project Zero; Asa Hilliard 3rd, professor of education at Georgia State University; Fred M. Newmann, director of the National Center on Effective Secondary Schools at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Arthur E. Wise, director of the rand Corporation’s center for the study of the teaching profession.

The statement was aimed at sending “a message” to President Bush and the governors as they put the final touches on their national education goals, according to D. Monty Neill, associate director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, the advocacy group that organized the effort.

Without such a statement, Mr. Neill said, those goals would be likely to lead to a call for more standardized, multiple-choice tests.

“In their well-intentioned desire to deal with the real problems of public education,” he said, “politicians are being seduced by the siren song of standardized testing.”

The signers of the document, he added, agree that “there are far, far too many standardized tests administered across the country.”

A report issued by FairTest in 1988, entitled “Fallout From the Testing Explosion,” estimated that schools administered 100 million standardized achievement tests in the 1986-87 school year.

State mandates for such testing proliferated during the past decade as reform-minded governors and legislators sought to gauge schools’ progress in improving student performance.

‘Laundry List’

Mr. Down of the CBE said the use of such tests distorts the education process. Rather than assessing whether students understand their coursework, he said, traditional standardized tests measure “knowledge, laundry-list style.”

Such testing has been particularly harmful for children in the early grades, suggested Barbara Willer, director of public education for the NAEYC

“Too many young children today are held back in grade, assigned to special classes, or held out of school based on the results of readiness and achievement tests that can frankly be described, at best, as suspect,” she said.

Schools also mistakenly rely solely on test scores, rather than on teachers’ and parents’ evaluations, to place children in federal programs for the disadvantaged, added Robert Witherspoon, director of the National Coalition of Title I/Chapter 1 Parents, another signer of the statement.

“We’ve seen Chapter 1 become a test-driven program,” he said. “Children are tested over and over, many times a year.”

“In some schools,” he claimed, “they spend more time in testing than they do in actual classrooms.”

Genuine Accountability

In urging states to abandon the use of multiple-choice tests, the statement also proposes that they replace them with new forms of assessment that would provide “genuine accountability.”

Several states, such as California, Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, have already started to move in that direction, noted Mr. Neill of FairTest.

In addition, Mr. Down said, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has also made a first step toward the use of alternative forms of assessment. About 30 percent of the 1990 NAEP, which gets under way next month, will include performance-based items, such as open-ended questions and the collection of portfolios of student writing. (See Education Week, Jan. 24, 1990.)

“NAEP is moving slowly in an enlightened direction,” Mr. Down said. “But it is going so slowly I’m rather disheartened.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 1990 edition of Education Week as Coalition Implores Bush, Governors To Avoid Use of Standardized Tests

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