Education Opinion

The Basal Reality

By Michael H. Kean — December 11, 1991 6 min read

Consider this scenario: In the darkest depths of our curricular consciousness, commercial textbook and test publishers are lurking, holding the minds of our children captive to their evil, money-making agendas. Try as they might, teachers, administrators, and state policymakers have only the bleakest hope of bringing new words and new ideas to these starving minds, for they are bound to one basal text, from which the rules of the land are written, and hence to one, grueling standardized test that arrives every April, “blighting the springtime of children.” How brutal it is for those who truly seek to impart learning and wisdom, how cruel to be held in the vise of the capitalist monster!

Such fear and loathing could only be spawned by Susan Harman’s imaginative Commentary, “The Basal Conspiracy” (Commentary, Nov. 13, 1991), in which we are confronted with a nightmare scenario whereby commercial text and test publishers have enslaved the education community by holding it in a vise of monopolistic control. As compelling as this Orwellian vision might be on the midnight creep show, it becomes no more frightening than a paper tiger in the light of day, once the real truths are told.

The first suggestion in Ms. Harman’s story is that publishers of basal texts and standardized tests control everything that is taught to our nation’s K-8 students by strong-arming districts, counties, and states to use, and reuse, materials into which they have made substantial investments. The publishers of basal texts and standardized tests, she says, effectively control the curriculums because the districts and counties can’t afford to change patterns built up over previous years.

Exactly the opposite is true.

Curriculum standards are set by state panels made up of curriculum experts, teachers, and administrators long before any investigation is made into the selection of the basal texts and tests available in the marketplace. Once the curriculums are determined, states select products from a market involving upwards of 30 basal publishers. The state’s stamp of approval is typically given to a list of half a dozen basals, or more. From this list, individual school districts select the basals that best match their curriculums.

Unwittingly or not, Ms. Harman clearly insults teachers by intimating that they are forced to blindly follow the basals, without any regard to their own experience or creativity. The plot thickens, she suggests, when their school districts are compelled to buy norm-referenced tests “made by the very same people who make the texts.” The far less-than-ominous truth is that there are essentially three companies making tests, and all three operate independently of their parent companies--which are among the 30 or so overall that develop basal texts. The test development and text development divisions operate in separate parts of the country, with separate staffs and editors. Any company that tied its standardized tests only to its own basal texts would effectively limit its market share to only those areas where its texts are used. The only real way test publishers can keep their products and companies strong is by ensuring that they accurately reflect the curriculum standards they are expected to measure, and that they are able to meet the very stiff competition in a marketplace in which educators and policymakers have the freedom to choose the best products.

The test-publishing industry is even further driven by the experts within the education community. No publisher in its right corporate mind would invest millions in research and development of its tests without first asking the prospective buyer what the purpose of the test will be. Will it be a standardized test designed to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction or to improve curriculum? Will it be used to determine whether a student has mastered critical instructional levels? Or will it be used to place students into classrooms and environments most suitable to their particular needs?

Educators understand that multiple measures are needed to determine overall student achievement. It wasn’t “blood on the wall,” as Ms. Harman suggests, that brought CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill into the development of performance assessments more than 25 years ago. It Was the recognition by the hundreds of educators, psychometricians, and researchers who compose its staff that this mode of assessment (as a supplement to standardized tests) offered significant potential for measuring a student’s mastery of concepts, facts, and critical thinking skills. These years of advance planning, research, and interaction with eventual users have led to current use of performance assessments in states such as Maryland, New Jersey, Indiana, and Alabama. In these and other areas, such measures are a periodic supplement to the one-on-one performance assessments good teachers utilize all year by reviewing writing assignments, asking questions of their students, giving weekly and daily “pop” tests, and effectively listening to their students.

The further assertion that standardized tests such as the California Achievement Test (C.A.T.) and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (C.T.B.S.), both published by C.T.B. Macmillan/McGraw- Hill, are responsible for ‘blighting the springtime of children,” is not only melodramatic, but absurd. Our nation’s public schools typically administer standardized tests to about one-third of their students every year. These test results have nothing to do with reward or punishment, nor do they affect the grades that are entered by teachers on report cards. Instead, they are used as a critical measure of achievement to assess student needs, to enhance interaction between the school and the student, and as an accountability tool for parents and others interested in evaluating their children’s overall progress.

Ms. Harman’s scenario is rendered even more surreal by the statement that text and test publishers cannot “afford” to bring innovation to their series. Innovation is the very thing, in fact, that supports the success in this vigorous marketplace. The upcoming edition of the C.A.T., for example, will reflect the newly recognized national math standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. This comes at the end of a multi-year process defined by close cooperation and responsiveness between mathematics-curriculum specialists, teachers, editors, and CTB Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, a company that listened well enough to tailor the product to the needs of education.

The final insult to teachers, administrators, and students alike comes in the epilogue to Ms. Harman’s tale, with the statement that testmakers use test scores to “hold captive our nation’s reading instruction.” Well, I guess we have to have someone to blame for the fact that our students are not doing as well as we know they should. Rather than talk about “malevolent” conspiracies however, wouldn’t it be more productive to work together to gain a consensus on the national standards to which we expect them to be held?

Consider the elegant analogy in the popular film Field of Dreams, where baseball players come to play only after a field is constructed-- “If you build it; he will come.” Once the forces at work in the education community come together to build a set of national curriculum standards, the test publishers will design and produce tests to effectively measure them.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as The Basal Reality