By Debra Viadero — November 01, 1996 3 min read
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In the early 1990s, many critics of a proposed national testing system maintained that U.S. students were already the “most heavily tested on earth.” But were they right? The answer depends on how you count the tests, says Richard Phelps, a senior research analyst at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. Phelps looked at data from four national and international studies conducted from 1990-91. When he counted the number of hours students spent taking tests, U.S. students ranked closer to the least heavily tested than the most. Students in France, Italy, Denmark, and Belgium, for example, spent more than five times as much time taking high-stakes tests than did U.S. students. Phelps then counted the number of tests that students took. Again, the U.S. ranked low. Ten of the 13 other countries he examined had more systemwide tests than the U.S. average of 2.5, he writes in the fall issue of Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice. But individual tests can be given more than once during the school year and at several different grade levels, so Phelps counted each grade-level or seasonal administration separately. Measured that way, the U.S. does appear to test more frequently. In one study of 13 nations, only Scotland and Germany had more individual test administrations. Phelps concludes that while U.S. educators may not necessarily test more, they certainly test differently than their foreign counterparts. Where other countries tend to give students lengthy tests at key transition points in their schooling, U.S. school districts rely on shorter, off-the-shelf tests and administer them at several grade levels. Moreover, the U.S. tests tended to be low-stakes ventures--students were not held accountable for their performance--and norm-referenced rather than pegged to any criteria for student achievement. “Our students face the lowest amount of high-stakes, mandated, and criterion-referenced testing in the world,” Phelps writes. “Instead our students face a plethora of...well...unimportant tests.”

Wrong Equation

Suppose you were given three kinds of algebra problems to solve. The first a typical symbolic equation, such as 3 x 5 + 34 = y. The second a word equation, something like: “Start with 100, subtract 40, and then divide by 3.” And the last a typical story problem. Which would you say is hardest for students to solve? Kenneth Koedinger and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of Colorado at Boulder put that question to teachers. And their findings--from two separate studies--suggest that teachers often fail to predict what kinds of problems their students find most difficult. Most of the 173 math educators surveyed thought the story problems or their word equa-tions would be hardest for students. But the students studied, most of whom were 9th graders in urban schools, made more errors on symbol-only equations. The reason students had better luck with verbal problems, according to the researchers, may be because those kinds of equations fit better with their real-life thought processes. But typical algebra courses, it turns out, comport with the teachers’ thinking. The courses start out with symbolic equations and build up to seemingly more complicated story problems. “We’re not very aware that we think of arithmetic operations more verbally than symbolically,” says Koedinger. “This puts a focus on the idea that teaching is more than knowing content.” Koedinger and his colleagues Mitchell Nathan and Hermina Tabachneck presented their findings last spring at the annual meet-ing of the American Educational Research Association.

Money Matters

Education researchers and economists have argued for more than 30 years over whether larger school budgets boost students’ academic performance. Now a new book from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, draws together prominent thinkers on both sides of the issue. Their collective answer: Maybe yes, maybe no. “In the recent past, some infusions of extra resources have helped students in some schools; and additional school resources in the more distant past have been associated with sizable and significant gains in adult earnings,” writes the book’s editor, Gary Burtless, a senior fellow in Brookings’ economic-studies program. “The studies in this book suggest, on balance, that the case for additional resources is far from overwhelming.” To order a copy of Does Money Matter? The Effect of School Resources on Student Achievement and Adult Success, contact the Brookings Institution Publications Dept., 1775 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.; Washington, D.C. 20036; (800) 275-1447.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Findings

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