Groups Aim To Block ‘Stampede’ to National Tests

By Robert Rothman — April 03, 1991 5 min read

Washington--Charging that the “stampede” to create national tests may harm, not help, education reform, a coalition of 50 education and civil-rights groups and researchers last week issued a statement urging President Bush and the Congress to oppose such plans.

“National tests would no more solve education problems than giving every child an X-ray would solve hunger problems among children,” Cinthia H. Schuman, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, which spearheaded the effort, said at a press conference here. “The only difference is, an exam would make the problem worse.”

The two-page statement asserts that the test proposals, which have proliferated in recent months, suffer from two “fatal flaws.”

First, it says, they assume that testing will drive changes in curriculum and instruction, a proposition the signers contend is contradicted by the experience of the past decade.

Moreover, the document states, the plans will most likely lead to the creation of a high-stakes multiple-choice test, which could discourage instruction in necessary higher-order thinking skills and “ultimately undermine public education.”

Rather than create a new test, the signers contended, the Administration and the Congress should support efforts to develop new methods of assessment, to train teachers, and to develop model curriculum standards. “Only after these educational-reform processes have been implemented and evaluated,” the statement says, “should the Congress and the Administration consider whether it is desirable or feasible to link the newly developed local and state performance-based assessments to each other and to national standards or curriculum frameworks.”

Sponsors of the national-testing plans last week defended their proposals as necessary steps to education reform.

Saul Cooperman, former commissioner of education in New Jersey and president of Educate America Inc., which has called for mandatory achievement tests for all high-school seniors, said such a plan would hold schools accountable for student learning.

“We have national goals,” he said. “That took guts for the President and the governors. Why not have the guts to say we need accountability at the other end? Let’s see how we’re doing.”

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, who as a member of President Bush’s advisory panel on education policy supported the creation of tests based on new national standards, said such tests would help parents find out whether their children are attaining those standards.

“Only then will we be able to make the fundamental changes in our education system that will lead to higher achievement,” Mr. Alexander said.

The statement issued last week was aimed at slowing the national test juggernaut, according to sponsors.

In the past few months, in addition to the President’s advisory group and Educate America, at least four other groups have moved to ward creating some form of national assessment. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991.)

“What we do need is a national agreement to set national standards, developed and accepted by a broad public consensus,” said Edward Keller, deputy executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “What we don’t need is a stampede to the simplistic idea that a national test is the answer for everything.”

In addition to FairTest and the NAESP, signers of the statement include the American Association of School Administrators, the Center for Women Policy Studies, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Education Association, and the National PTA.

Other signers include Asa Hilliard 3rd, professor of education at Georgia State University, Fred M. Newmann, director of the National Research Center on the Study of Organization and Restructuring of Schools, and Vito Perrone, professor of education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.The signers said that the test proposals represent a “quick fix” that may short-circuit efforts to improve schooling.

“The rush to test outcomes jeopardizes the potential for real curriculum reform,” said Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Moreover, said Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the National PTA, the test proposals represent a potentially dangerous “top down” reform at a time when most educators agree that improvements must take place at the class room and school-building level.

“If there is going to be a national test,” he said, “it has to have the ownership of every parent and community in the country.”

The plans could also widen the gaps between white and minority students, added Beverly Cole, director of education for the NAACP “There should be no national test unless [sponsors] can demonstrate how it will improve the quality of education and provide equity,” she id. “At this point, no one knows what the consequences of the test will be.”

Participants at the press conference, however, drew a distinction among the different test proposals. The plan by Educate America, which would create primarily multiple-choice tests, would be an “educational disaster,” said D. Montyeill, associate director of FairTest.

Such tests encourage teachers to concentrate on “drill and kill” on narrow skills and knowledge and thwart efforts to develop higher-level abilities, he said. “Multiple-choice tests drop kids out of school,” he said.

By contrast, he and others noted, the plan by the National Center for Education and the Economy and the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center would rely on alternative forms of assessment, such as performance-L based measures and student-work portfolios.

In addition, noted Mr. Fege, that plan--and a similar proposal being considered by the National Education Goals panel--are superior to the others because they start with the premise that a consensus on curriculum standards needs to be developed before the examination is created.

“There is a trend in the right direction,” Mr. Fege said. “I’m not sure that trend doesn’t need a kick in the pants to keep it going.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 1991 edition of Education Week as Groups Aim To Block ‘Stampede’ to National Tests