Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

April 25, 1990 11 min read

Gregory J. Cizek’s Commentary (“The ‘Sloppy’ Logic of Test Abolitionists,” April 4, 1990) suggests that the “statement on genuine accountability” struck a nerve.

Alas, his charge about the logic of the “abolitionists” is ironic.

My point about performance declines occurring with an increase in testing was not intended as a causal argument, as a thorough reading of my recent Commentary makes clear. Rather, I offered it as a premise as part of my introductory paragraph on the subject of quality.

The purpose of the essay was to ask policymakers to reconsider the fallacious argument that higher-quality performance is both evoked and measured by a policy of one-shot, multiple-choice tests.

More disconcerting is that Mr. Cizek seems not to grasp the documented harm done by high-stakes proxy testing: It impoverishes practice.

“But this isn’t the fault of the test!” he and others might say.

On the contrary, such tests naturally cause teachers and administrators to worry about results--sometimes to the point of forgetting about quality.

How does Mr. Cizek think the scandal of the Lake Wobegon effect--where all states are above average--happened?

My work entails helping schools set effective standards; I resent Mr. Cizek’s innuendo that those of us who fault specific “measures” seek to avoid accountability.

I have consistently written about the need for authentic “standards and measures,” given the unreliability of the school transcript.

The issue is what kinds of standards are worth honoring? What kinds of tests are worth teaching to?

Thus, Mr. Cizek’s appeal to common sense--that testing is like the “taking of temperature"--is not apt: Doctors only begin with taking temperature; it is a mere indicator, the start of inquiry into “health.”

Multiple-choice tests have become the operant definition of health or its absence--a harmful result, since under these circumstances everyone works hard only to be 98.6, at which point they call themselves healthy.

“Authentic” assessment is not a mere article of faith or fuzzy idea, as Mr. Cizek says. New York, California, and Connecticut are proving that on a large scale.

More to the point, other countries have been using open-ended assessment tasks for decades.

Why don’t we? In part because vendors set de facto standards in this country, and they have little incentive to market nonsecret, time-consuming, open-ended tests.

Few test-company personnel seem to realize that their careful work often leads to dreadful, if unintended, results.

I would implore them to see that the misuse of tests is their responsibility, too.

Grant Wiggins Director of Research Consultants on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure Rochester, N.Y.

In his own writing, Gregory J. Cizek provides a golden treasury of faulty reasoning.

For example, he accuses “abolitionists” of “evalophobia” and of wanting to destroy the link between quality of instruction and quality of performance.

Quite the contrary. This link is exceptionally tenuous when it depends on test scores--at best a proxy for actual performance of a skill.

What opponents of such testing want is a tight link between instruction and assessment and, where possible, a tight fit with theory, too.

No reading test currently on the market reflects what we know from research about what it means to read, nor does any test reflect how reading is taught.

Tests reflect only naive realism and unthinking behaviorism, largely because test makers know neither cognitive nor developmental psychology.

Mr. Cizek accuses those who assert that testing has had a negative impact on education of inferring causality from correlation.

In fact, we have much collateral evidence to corroborate this allegation. Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress, not usually thought of as a haven for radical or flaky ideas, has suggested that high scores on tests of “basic” skills have been purchased at the expense of performance on more complex tasks.

“Abolitionists” are interested in observing these complex skills directly, rather than trying to milk inferences from the pale proxies offered by multiple-choice tests.

Of the three “reasonable” inferences that Mr. Cizek suggests from high test scores--high-scoring students grasp what is taught; they outperform others, and “the instruction has been appropriate"--only the middle inference is plausible (and obvious). The other two are laughable.

This piece could have been written only by a person holed up in a room full of numbers, unaware of what goes on in classrooms or what real children are like.

It is noteworthy that Mr. Cizek hopes his essay will lead to further “development in the technology of testing.”

Improvements in technology are all we’ve had from testing since about 1920. We can now do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn’t be doing at all.

Happily, I’ve just returned from a week of touring Colorado, providing assessment workshops that included many examples of what Mr. Cizek alleges are “poorly defined alternatives,” and found that the abolitionists outnumber the psychometric true believers.

Gerald W. Bracey Director of Research and Evaluation Cherry Creek Schools Englewood, Colo.

It is surprising to find a man who writes as well as Gregory J. Cizek falling prey to his own arguments.

I am neither an abolitionist nor a proponent of testing but a teacher who is concerned that objectivity has left the debate.

Throwing stones is a nonproductive exercise, no matter who is doing it.

My concerns about assessment come from a different perspective: What is it being used for?

My fear is that those who insist testing is necessary for either monitoring students’ progress or for ascertaining the effectiveness of particular programs are applying their models to a variety of unrelated situations.

Mr. Cizek suggests that he must be “old-fashioned” because he believes that knowledge is the basis of education.

He may be old-fashioned, but he certainly is not aware of history. Who was it who said, “Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime”?

I hope that my children’s teachers will teach them how to fish rather than simply give them fish.

It is the ability to use information that makes us powerful, not the information itself.

The position of both parties to this argument should be to agree on the goals of assessment and from there determine the nature of the instruments.

Alan Eisen Kew Gardens, N.Y.

Gregory J. Cizek makes some “logical” arguments in defense of standardized tests.

He tends, however, to minimize the degree to which their results are accepted and revered by educators, politicians, and the public.

I am not an expert in testing and hope never to be. As a teacher, I spent many years with able students who, for the most part, did well on tests of all kinds.

It didn’t take me long to realize that if I did what traditionally was expected of teachers, my ultimate task would be to sort students into categories, established primarily by test results.

Some students were good at performing in the traditional framework, while others were not. Unfortunately, tests could not measure all or even most of what went on in my classroom--but they were the only factor that really counted.

I disagree with critics who claim that the education system is failing.

I think it is working just fine: It was designed to control and sort students, to compel the memorization of facts and report on which students are best able to do that.

Standardized tests do an admirable job of finding out what students can remember. But what if students remember something that isn’t on the test? Sorry, no place for that.

The proponents of testing share a major portion of the blame for what goes on in classrooms today. The boredom, the overwhelming amount of teacher talk, the use of simplistic textbooks, the rigid curriculum, and the non-involvement of so many students are direct results of educators’ efforts to have students do well on tests.

Usually attributing the best motives to people, educators as a group believe that textbook companies, testing services, and other members of the “edubusiness” industry are sincerely trying to help them.

They usually don’t think about these groups’ political and economic power or the degree to which they control education.

Educators believe that if people keep complaining about test scores, it is their responsibility to do something about them. Unfortunately, they have chosen the path that Mr. Cizek advocates.

To me, investing so much money, time, and effort in testing is a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Where will it get us?

Mel Kozek Staff Development Specialist Bloomfield Hills Schools Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

I found Edward J. Loughran’s Commentary (“Refocusing on Prevention of Delinquency,” March 21, 1990) interesting and rewarding.

I agree with Mr. Loughran that the schools, the courts, the juvenile-justice system, and the public’s views on treatment of juveniles need to be looked at seriously, and that coordinated action needs to be taken to save our youths and our country.

As he mentions, several warning signs indicate the problems young people face and suggest approaches for helping eradicate the problems.

I feel that this Commentary--itself a “warning sign"--should have been the only piece on your front page, so that those of us who picked up the paper would have quickly seen that it was a prelude to that which followed.

Lonnie D. Farrell Los Angeles, Calif.

In his Commentary, Edward J. Loughran issues a formidable challenge to those of us who work in the juvenile-justice system: to look at what we do and how we do it.

Mr. Loughran indicates in his conclusion that there are many possibilities for prevention. But he rules out a viable alternative--one already in existence.

There is at least one institution for incarcerated young people that focuses on rehabilitation, not correction.

Saint Gabriel’s Hall, a private, residential facility, houses approximately 210 adjudicated delinquents from Philadelphia and surrounding counties.

As in the profile outlined by Mr. Loughran, its population comes from predominantly poor families and destitute, drug-ridden neighborhoods. These young people are illiterate; they have been chronic truants or dropouts, and they possess no marketable job skills.

Yet in March 1989, Saint Gabriel’s Hall was named by the U.S. Education Department as a school of “excellence"--the first time that this distinction was bestowed on a program for adjudicated delinquents.

This indicates that institutions can be of great service to the young men committed to them if the institutions follow a program of intervention in all aspects of the juveniles’ lives.

In addition to its educational efforts, Saint Gabriel’s Hall offers a program centering around personal growth, with a staff of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and child-care workers.

We cannot match Massachusetts’s statistics on recidivism; our rate is around 30 percent. But for students who earn diplomas with us, recidivism drops to 10 percent.

Our system gives the young man the opportunity to remove himself from his detrimental environment and take a deep look at what he has been doing.

On completion of his stay, he can continue with us in our day treatment center, which offers him the chance to learn a vocational trade or continue his academic education.

Or he can seek admission into one of our three group homes, from which he can attend school or obtain a job.

Our system also prepares him to return to his community school.

We must do this in a period of 9 to 12 months; the average stay is 10 months.

We instill a desire to change and learn. Our staff works with these young men to help them get their lives back into order and to order it on moral convictions rather than the amoral or immoral ones that previously existed.

More than anything else, we offer a viable choice to our students. For many of them, commitment to the school is the first time they have come into contact with people who care about them. Failure, physical and sexual abuse, and neglect have no part in our program.

Perhaps others who are having success will also make that success known so that the disturbing picture painted by Mr. Loughran can be challenged.

James J. Buro Assistant Director of Education Saint Gabriel’s Hall Audubon, Pa.

Brother Walter Davenport suggests that the addition of a religion class is the only real difference between the curriculum at parochial schools and that of public schools--and that therefore tax aid can be extended to the secular part of the program (“The Use of Public Funds In Private Schools Backed,” Letters, April 4, 1990).

While that dual approach may be in place at Brother Davenport’s school, it certainly is not the norm--or the goal--for Catholic parochial schools.

Cardinal William Baum of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education wrote in a 1988 document on religious education that the “special character of the Catholic school, and the underlying reason for its existence, the reason why Catholic parents should prefer it, is precisely the quality of the religious instruction integrated into the overall education of the students.”

Or as Sister Catherine T. McNamee, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, put it in a 1989 interview: “What makes a Catholic school Catholic, in fact, is the integration of faith and knowledge--that the Gospel message permeates the curriculum in Catholic elementary and secondary schools, and that there is a general attempt to bring the values of the faith to bear upon culture and the transmission of knowledge.”

A long string of U.S. court decisions have found that parochial education is “pervasively sectarian” and therefore cannot be subsidized with tax dollars.

If Brother Davenport teaches religion only in religion class, he isn’t fulfilling the mission set forth by the Catholic Church for its parochial schools.

Robert L. Maddox Americans United for Separation of Church and State Silver Spring, Md.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1990 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor