Gene I. Maeroff is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
There is already no absence of indicators against which to weigh outcomes. Informed observers know very well which schools have high dropout rates. Information is available on college acceptances, as well as on Advanced Placement tests, the A.C.T., S.A.T., and P.S.A.T. Students’ papers and projects might be collected and read in a host of subjects at all grade levels. And there is, of course, the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the various adaptations that might be made of it. The list goes on and on.
Unsuccessful schools can be readily identified, and yet they seldom improve. A national system of assessment, in other words, will not reveal much that is not already known or could not be inferred.
If it is no secret which students are faltering, why would adding another measure of their failure cause them to do better? Fundamental obstacles seem to suppress achievement no matter how extensively children are assessed. Some of these obstacles are imbedded in society itself, and some are indigenous to the schools.
Among the main societal barriers, for example, are a general devaluing of delayed gratification and an aggressively anti-intellectual attitude. Within the schools, there are barriers created, for example, by the inability of the educational system to close the gaps for students once they have fallen behind and the absence of disincentives for students who are willing to settle for mediocrity.
Education ineluctably involves payoffs that are not immediate. Regardless of how much relevancy and amusement are injected into the curriculum, substantial learning ultimately depends on investing time and effort for which no rewards can be immediately discerned. America, though, in so many ways, emphasizes immediate gratification and teachers cannot easily counter this attitude.
The nation’s anti-intellectualism is another obstacle. Athletes and entertainers are glorified as never before, and learning for learning’s sake is scorned. A system of national assessments is not apt to change the feelings of black children who say that it is “white’’ to achieve in school, nor of white children who maintain that only nerds care about schoolwork.
In terms of schools themselves, only a few pilot projects have been able to halt the trend by which the poorest students fall farther behind the longer they remain in school. In the absence of an upheaval in teaching practices and in the ways that schools are organized, more assessment will simply ratify these failures.
And even for the many students performing passably, there is the continuing enigma of how to summon the best out of them. The huge majority of them, especially in secondary schools, coast along, passed from grade to grade as a reward for minimal effort. They remain assured that a diploma will get them into some college somewhere.
So, then, it is not so much that a system of national assessments would be good or bad as that it may be redundant or irrelevant.
A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as By All Measures: ‘Revealing What Is Already Known’