Standardized Tests Deficient, English Teachers Assert

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Philadelphia--Standardized testing, while valuable in some respects, provides little diagnostic information that is useful to teachers, perpetuates the separation of evaluation from learning, and narrows the curriculum to emphasize the limited skills measured by the tests, the National Council of Teachers of English charged at its 75th annual meeting here last week.

In the face of such faults, the council pledged to work toward uniting evaluation and learning, seek ways to empower English teachers to be confident evaluators and constructive critics of language-arts tests, and develop alternative models of assessment.

"We push education in the wrong directions when we put a heavy emphasis on testing," said Sheila M. Fitzgerald, professor of education at Michigan State University and president of the ncte for the past year. "We have to consider the characteristics of tests that are not publicized."

As examples, she cited the fact that standardized tests are given on a one-shot basis and fail to measure students' knowledge over a period of time; that there are limitations to what can be measured on paper-and-pencil tests; that labeling of children--especially the very young--can be detrimental; that the curriculum becomes overreliant on commercially prepared textbooks and tests to the exclusion of teachers' creativity and knowledge.

But probably most important, Ms. Fitzgerald said, is that "the curriculum inevitably shrinks to the measures used for evaluation," and students come to view classroom work as far less significant than what they are asked to know for a test.

In addition, she charged that "there is a direct relationship between what you say to a child about his test results ... and what the dropout rate is."

Educators "should be appalled" by increases in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, Ms. Fitzgerald asserted, saying such increases raise the question of "what has been sacrificed to achieve that."

'Substitute for Instruction'

The issue of standardized testing was raised several times during the six-day conference, which drew over85,000 teachers of English from the 1st-grade through postsecondary levels.

At a session entitled "Assessment: Its Effect on Curriculum, Classroom, and Students," Neil Ellman, a teacher from Hanover Park Region High School in New Jersey, charged that testing has become "an end in itself, a substitute for instruction." As a result, he noted, legislators, parents, and businessmen are telling teachers to key instruction to what the tests measure.

"The tests are not only dictating the content of our curriculum, but the instructional methods themselves," Mr. Ellman said. That is happening, he noted, even though standardized tests are "contrary to everything we as educators have learned about the content and structure of education."

Among the myths incorporated into standardized tests, Mr. Ellman said, are that all students work at the same pace and that all have mastered the same body of knowledge by the time the test is given.

Further, he said, standardized tests do not reflect a holistic method of teaching and learning, address the study of literature, or evaluate creativity and higher-order thinking skills.

"The ramifications for curriculum and instruction are enormous," he said. "Teachers are given the implicit signal that such things don't count--students get that signal as well."

And at a press conference at which teachers discussed the effect of the reform movement on their work, Nancy S. McHugh, an English teacher at Grant High School in Los Angeles and vice president of the ncte, noted that state and dis-trict testing mandates have forced her to spend increasing amounts of time preparing for the assessments.

"The day was lengthened by 15 minutes and the year by four days," she said, "but we're losing 10 to 15 days in terms of testing and preparation for evaluation."

Council Resolutions

In other resolutions adopted by the ncte, the council voted to call on legislators and regulatory agencies to ensure that professional language-arts organizations are directly involved in the development of all legislation, regulations, and guidelines governing English curricula. And it stated its opposition to mandated curricula that have not been developed with the involvement of such organizations.

It also expressed concern that reform initiatives are placing restrictions on teachers' instructional approaches while failing to address the central problems of class size and student-teacher ratios. For that reason, the council called on legislators and state education groups to act to reduce class size.

The ncte also agreed to recommend to local, state, and national school-board officials and agencies that all English-language-arts teachers be prepared and certified in accordance with council guidelines.

In two resolutions on grammar and listening, the council denounced the use of isolated grammar and usage drills, supporting, instead, the use of class time for "meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing"; urged the discontinuance of testing that encourages the teaching of grammar rather than language arts; and recommended that goals and objectives for listening instruction be grounded in sound theory and relevant research.

And the council reaffirmed its commitment to affirmative action and equal opportunity in education and its own affairs; and urged publishers to portray in their publications a broader perception of human history and an "adequate and accurate" account of racial and ethnic minority groups in American history and literature.

Other Action

In other action at the conference:

Shirley Brice Heath, author of Ways With Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms, was presented the ncte's David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English. Ms. Heath, professor of education at Stanford University, was honored for research on children's language development in two rural South Carolina communities, one white, the other black. Her book, which chronicles the study, was cited for "contributing in a significant way to our understanding of the role of language in schooling."

And the ncte named as this year's recipient of its "Doublespeak Award" the Central Intelligence Agency. That award is intended to highlight the year's most conspicuous example of language that is "grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-contradictory," according to the ncte

The cia was chosen as this year's winner for its preparation of a "Psychological Warfare Manual" for rebels fighting the government of Nicaragua, according to William Lutz, chairman of the Doublespeak committee. The manual, he said, "gave advice on the 'selective use of violence' to 'neutralize' Nicaraguan officials."

Vol. 05, Issue 14

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