Ford Study Urges New Test System To ‘Open the Gates of Opportunity’

By Robert Rothman — May 30, 1990 7 min read
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Charging that the American testing system has become a “hostile gatekeeper” that has limited opportunities for many, particularly women and minorities, a panel of leaders from education, business, labor, and civil rights last week called for a new system of testing that would “open the gates of opportunity for America’s diverse people.”

The three-year, Ford Foundation-funded study by the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy, released at a press conference here last week, won immediate applause from test makers and testing critics alike.

It concluded that schools and businesses are increasingly relying on standardized, multiple-choice tests to make critical judgments about individuals and institutions. Each year, it estimated, 20 million school days and $700 million to $900 million are devoted to taking standardized tests.

But, it contended, tests are imperfect measures that can unfairly misclassify well-qualified people, and it charged that the overuse of tests can distort schooling and social policy.

To transform the system, the commission urged schools and businesses to shift toward the use of alternative forms of assessment that would measure performance in school and on the job, and to consider a broad range of information--including test scores--to evaluate individuals and institutions.

It also recommended the creation of an independent body to oversee and monitor the use of standardized tests.

But the panel stopped short of calling for the abolition of standardized tests.

“Tests can be a major positive mechanism enabling the nation to acknowledge and recognize talent,” said the commission’s chairman, Bernard R. Gifford, vice president for education of Apple Computer Inc. “What we need to do is shift our emphasis from test scores to the quality of information provided by test scores.”

“Under no circumstances,” he said, “should individuals be denied an opportunity for education, training, or employment exclusively on the basis of a test score. The human animal is far more complex and far more rich than can be measured by a single test.”

Gregory R. Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service, said he agreed that tests should “be neither the lead horse nor the scapegoat of American education.”

“All of us should work together,” he said, “to ensure that tests and all other elements of the American educational experience provide a bridge, not a barrier, for our children’s future.”

Cinthia Schuman, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, said her organization “is committed to the implementation of testing reforms to bring these recommendations to fruition.”

Shifting From ‘Weeding Out’

Created in 1987 with an $800,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the 17-member commission was charged with studying testing practices in schools, the workplace, and the military, and with coming up with recommendations to “promote the identification and nurturing of talent, especially among racial, ethnic, and linguistic minorities.”

Over the past three years, the panel commissioned some 50 papers on a range of testing issues, and convened five public hearings to examine the impact of testing on Hispanics, Asian Americans, blacks, Native Americans, and women.

The issue is particularly timely, noted Mr. Gifford, because the United States faces a labor shortage in critical fields and must make the best use of its human resources.

“Twenty years ago, when testing initially became controversial, there were far more individuals pursuing opportunities than there were opportunities,” he said. “Testing was used as a major measure of weeding out qualified candidates.”

“Today,” he added, “in the middle of a growing labor shortage that will grow more acute in the future, it is very clear the emphasis placed on testing in the past of weeding out candidates has to shift.”

Testing too often has limited opportunities for many individuals, particularly women and minorities, states the panel’s report, “From Gatekeeper to Gateway: Transforming Testing in America.”

“A significant segment of society, ...” it states, “has experienced and continues to experience testing as a hostile gatekeeper.”

As an example, the report cites the story of Antonia Gonzalez, who was denied access to a teaching career because she failed an examination by one point, even though she earned high grades in education courses and showed teaching skills as a tutor after graduating from college.

One commission member, Robert L. Linn, co-director of the federally sponsored center for the study of evaluation, standards, and student testing at the University of Colorado, argued that the panel placed too much emphasis on the negative effects of testing.

“When properly used, tests are not only a way of closing doors,” he said. “For some people they open doors. They are a means for people to demonstrate that they have developed skills and abilities.”

Impact on Minorities

The commission concluded, nevertheless, that policies that rely solely on standardized-test scores to make judgments about people’s abilities are misguided, because tests are imperfect and potentially misleading.

Test scores are influenced by a variety of factors--such as outside noise or whether the test-taker has eaten breakfast--that may have nothing to do with the test-taker’s knowledge or abilities, the report notes.

Moreover, it states, using test scores as a sole measure of ability has a disproportionately harmful effect on minorities, who tend to score less well than whites on standardized tests. Other measures of performance, however, such as job performance and grade-point averages, show that minorities and whites perform nearly equally well.

“The impact of testing on the minority community has been devastating,” said Antonia Hernandez, a commission member and the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.

The panel also charged that students are subject to too many standardized tests, and that such testing may be distorting schooling.

The commission estimated that, each year, elementary and secondary students take 127 million separate tests as part of test batteries mandated by states and districts. At some grade levels, the report notes, a student may take 7 to 12 tests a year.

Such testing costs taxpayers nearly $1 billion a year, it notes, including the direct costs of purchasing and scoring tests and the indirect costs of administering and preparing students for the examinations.

The “opportunity costs” of missed instructional time used to drill students in the narrow skills measured by standardized tests are even greater than the financial costs, the report contends. It argues that such time could be better used to develop students’ higher-order skills.

“What we’ve done is turn schools into test-preparation institutions, rather than institutions where real imagination is fired up,” Mr. Gifford said.

Consumer Protection

In presenting its new vision of testing as “an instrument to enhance the development of human talent,” the commission proposed that schools, government, and businesses re-evaluate the standards by which the quality of tests are judged, the ways test results are reported, and the ways the results are used.

In particular, it suggests, test results should describe what examinees probably can and cannot do, rather than classify people as “not able to learn,” and should indicate the probable error associated with the score or classification.

In addition, the panel argued, schools and businesses that restrict opportunities on the basis of test scores should provide remediation to help students and job applicants gain the skills necessary to succeed.

The panel also proposed that the testing enterprise be subject to greater public accountability.

“Today, those who take and use many tests have less consumer protection than those who buy a toy, a toaster, or a plane ticket,” the report states.

Although the panel declined to state what form such protection might take, it suggested that a government agency, such as the Food and Drug Administration, or an independent body, such as Consumers’ Union or the Underwriters’ Laboratory, might serve to regulate the industry.

George F. Madaus, the commission’s executive director and the director of the center for the study of testing, evaluation, and educational policy at Boston College, is conducting a study to determine whether the industry should be regulated. (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1988.)

‘Test Our Way Out’?

The panel also recommended that testing programs shift from a reliance on multiple-choice tests to the use of a variety of indicators, including performance-based assessments.

Mr. Madaus noted at the press conference that several states and school districts--including Connecticut, Vermont, San Diego, and Boston--are moving toward the use of such forms of assessment.

He acknowledged that such a shift would be costly, but noted that the added benefits would outweigh the costs of the existing testing system.

Warning that reforms in testing alone are unlikely to improve education, Mr. Madaus said the restructuring of schools and training institutions is necessary to ensure that students and job applicants acquire needed skills and knowledge.

“In the 70s and 80s, we did try to test our way out of our difficulties,” he said. “We got what we got.”

Copies of “From Gatekeeper to Gateway: Transforming Testing in America” are available for $6 each from the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy, McGuinn 529, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass. 02167.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 1990 edition of Education Week as Ford Study Urges New Test System To ‘Open the Gates of Opportunity’


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