Researchers Say Emphasis on Testing Too Narrow, Could Set Back Reforms

By Robert Rothman — June 12, 1991 5 min read
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Proposals by President Bush and others to create a national testing system are unlikely to improve schools and could set back reforms already under way, educational researchers cautioned at a meeting here last week.

“We’re not saying tests are inherently bad,” said Richard M. Jaeger, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “We’re saying the assumptions of the Administration that education reform will result exclusively [from testing] could be termed ‘voodoo education policy.”’

“It just isn’t going to happen that way,” he asserted.

Speaking at a conference organized by the American Educational Research Association, the researchers said the evidence from the last two decades of testing in the United States and abroad suggests that the current movement toward national testing may be misguided.

Despite the proponents’ aims of ensuring that all students meet “world-class standards,” the scholars said, the “high stakes” assessments the proposals call for tend to narrow the curriculum and emphasize “lowest-common-denominator standards.”

Moreover, added Robert E. Stake, a professor of education at the University of Illinois, such tests are unlikely to affect instructional practice, since teachers put little stock in the information tests provide.

But even if the tests managed to lead to better instruction, they would not, in themselves, be likely to improve schools, suggested Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“A lot of policy changes need to occur for school behavior to change,” she said. “We need to look at a whole range--finance, curriculum, certification of teachers, all of that. Nothing in the policy proposals put forth in support of national tests gives any credence to those.”

“What we’re doing is certifying more tightly the inequalities that exist,” she contended. “We’re not doing anything to remedy them.”

Slowing the Bandwagon

The conference here was part of a new initiative by the research association to bring research information to bear on issues of policy import, according to Ann Lieberman, president of the AERA.

The meeting was planned a year and a half ago to discuss accountability in education, she said. But the idea of a national test, which has risen quickly on the education agenda, pushed that topic to the forefront, added Ms. Lieberman, a professor of education at Teachers College.

In the past few months, several national officials, including President Bush, have called for some form of national testing system. Last week, for example, the National Education Goals Panel took the first steps toward creating such a system by forming a council to recommend ways to proceed in setting standards. (See story, page 1.)

But research on existing tests suggests that the bandwagon may be moving too fast, Ms. Lieberman said.

“The big message is, we want to slow down on national tests,” she said. “The evidence, 10 to 15 years in the making from the states, provides interesting material that gives us a window on some difficulties that would be in a national test.”

Motivational Effects

Researchers here said such tests may not accomplish the goals the proponents claim for them, and may in fact cause some harm.

Citing studies of 1972 and 1980 high-school graduates, Mr. Jaeger noted that test performance had little effect on the students’ post-school earnings. Some national-testing advocates have argued that the assessments may help students by encouraging them to perform well in school.

“Possession of a high-school diploma is far more important than scoring well on a basic-skills competency test in determining a student’s life chances in American society,” Mr. Jaeger said.

In addition, noted George F. Madaus, the Boisi professor of education and public policy at Boston College, evidence suggests that tests can motivate only those students who “believe that they have a good chance of achieving the rewards attached to high performance.”

For those who feel they cannot meet the standards, he added, the tests may have harmful effects, such as causing them to drop out of school.

The Boston College researcher also argued that tests with important consequences tend to narrow the curriculum and force teachers to focus on the material in the examination. Although some of the national-testing advocates have proposed creating new kinds of tests, such as performance-based assessments, that are “worth teaching to,” such tests may also adversely affect the curriculum, Mr. Madaus said.

“It depends on what the results are used for,” he said. “Just because it’s called ‘authentic,’ the tasks are just as corruptible as multiple-choice tests. Corruptibility is a function of the stakes attached to it.”

‘Lowest Common Denominator’

Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, also warned that recent experience with the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests that standards for a national assessment system may fall considerably short of the “world class” level the President has urged.

In announcing his America 2000 plan for education reform, Mr. Bush urged the creation of the first “American Achievement Test” based on new national standards by 1993.

Ms. Shepard noted that the current 4th-grade-mathematics framework for NAEP, which was developed by consensus among the states, falls short of the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“If all 50 states have to agree to them, I can bet you you’ll get a lower set of standards than if you let ambitious states go off on their own,” she said. “In the short term, you’ll get lowest-common-denominator standards, not world-class standards.”

Ms. Shepard suggested, however, that the proposal for a national examination system currently being considered by the goals panel, which is expected to take until the end of the decade to develop, could avoid the compromises the President’s proposal may foster.

But Ms. Darling-Hammond warned that if the testing system is used to allocate rewards and sanctions to schools, it too could have “perverse consequences” on education, particularly on schools that serve the most disadvantaged students.

“It depends on what we use the assessment for,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 1991 edition of Education Week as Researchers Say Emphasis on Testing Too Narrow, Could Set Back Reforms


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