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Exam Anxiety

August 17, 2001 3 min read
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More testing is an unworthy and ineffective means of raising expectations for poor and minority students.

President Bush’s proposal to test students in grades 3 through 8 every year amounts to bad policy that could create chaos and harm thousands of children without improving their performance. Unfortunately, the two houses of Congress have already agreed on the testing plan in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; their argument is mainly over how to carry it out.

People who should know better are supporting the Bush plan because they believe it will force teachers to raise their expectations for poor and minority students and prompt them to teach those kids the rigorous curricula that high- achieving students receive. Although that is a worthy objective, more testing is an unworthy and ineffective means of achieving it. Here’s why:

  • The testing plan assumes we can threaten and pressure schools and students into raising performance. But states already taking this tack produce few positive results. Failing and marginal schools nearly always lack the capacity to solve their problems. They don’t have the money or the know-how, nor do they have the quality teachers they need, the supplies, the equipment, or the facilities.

Failing and marginal schools nearly always lack the capacity to solve their problems.

  • If testing in grades 3 to 5, in particular, is intended for diagnostic purposes, as the president claims, it won’t help much. The tests will be administered late in the year, meaning they won’t be scored and returned to teachers until the students are well into the next school year. Moreover, teachers continuously test kids for diagnostic purposes. If they aren’t using what they learn now to help students, why would they use new data?
  • The plan will increase pressure on faculties to teach to the test, which would be fine if the test covered what we want students to learn. But in 44 states, exams aren’t aligned with standards. Most states are still using the same old off-the-shelf tests.
  • The amount of testing has grown so fast that the rather small testing industry has been scrambling to meet demand. As a result, testing companies have admitted to horrendous mistakes that prevented seniors from graduating, forced other students to attend summer school, and resulted in some kids repeating a grade. These same companies are frequently late in getting tests developed and scoring completed. Untrained, temporary workers often are hired to read and score essays and other open-ended questions. These mistakes are costly—sometimes life-altering—for thousands of youngsters. And the president’s mandate could increase the demand on these companies by as much as 50 percent.
  • Implicit in Bush’s proposal is the assumption that, if additional testing reveals poor student performance or weaknesses in schools, somebody (who?) will take corrective action. But we don’t need more tests to tell us that large numbers of children are entering (and leaving) high school without being able to read, write, or compute at basic levels, much less proficient levels, and that state and federal governments are a long way from taking the steps necessary to correct these problems. The president’s plan will add hundreds more schools to the list of failures, about which little or nothing will be done.
The president’s plan will add hundreds more schools to the list of failures, about which little or nothing will be done.
  • Finally, one has to wonder how much of this is political posturing. Congress adopted strict Title I accountability measures in 1994, requiring states to develop six new tests in six years. The federal government hasn’t enforced that law, and only 11 states have complied fully.

President Bush has justified the new tests by saying, “Without yearly testing we do not know who is falling behind and who needs our help.” If that’s what this is all about, we can save lots of time and money. All the president and Congress need to do is visit the districts and schools that serve the urban and rural poor, immigrants, and racial minorities. There they can see, with their own eyes, the children whom we always leave behind and who desperately need our help. If our political leaders actually need more testing to tell them that, they haven’t been paying attention.

—Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 2001 edition of Teacher Magazine as Exam Anxiety

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