Test Producers Pledge To Abide By Fair Practices

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In a major step toward self-regulation, the nation's leading publishers of achievement and college-admissions tests have signed a "code of fair practices" for test developers and users.

The statement, which is expected to be released this week, represents what one official called a "product warranty" to ensure that the rights of test takers are protected.

Although it does not propose sanctions for violators, the code pledges the signers to go through specific procedures to assure the appropriateness, proper interpretation, and fairness of their tests.

"This provides a focus for testing organizations to commit publicly to practices that are fair to students, who are essentially the objects of testing in this country," said Richard Ferguson, president of the American College Testing Program and a signer of the code.

"Though many organizations do commit, in their behavior, to these practices," he added, "it is nevertheless a useful thing for the practices to be publicly known and identified with testing organizations."

The fact that "the six organizations that provide the largest portion of tests in American schools have agreed to endorse the code," added Gregory R. Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service, "is healthy for students and parents."

"This is the first time any endeavor in the private sector had the major firms get together to make a public declaration," he added.

In addition to the act and the ets, initial signers of the code include the College Board, ctb/McGraw-Hill, the Psychological Corporation, and the Riverside Publishing Company.

The code lists 21 steps developers and users should take in developing and selecting appropriate tests; interpreting scores; striving for fairness to minority and handicapped test takers; and informing test takers about such issues as test content, their rights in obtaining scores, and procedures for registering complaints.

Although the code contains no enforcement mechanism, testing officials said the publication of the document could encourage the public to put pressure on the firms to follow it.

"We hold ourselves to these principles," said John J. Fremer, senior development leader for the ets and chairman of the group that produced the code. "Feel free to question us if you feel that on any project wet adhered to those principles."

Publication of the four-page code comes at a time when the use of tests has reached what some term a "frenzied" level, and when the industry in turn has come under increased scrutiny.

"Testing is as popular, and at the same time, as unpopular with some people, as I have ever seen," said Mr. Fremer. "The more people care, the more questions they ask."

The effort to develop the code began in 1984, when publishers and testing experts met to consider ways to strengthen the industry's standards.

While useful for technical developers of tests, officials said, those standards--published by the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education--were insufficient, because many teachers, school administrators, and others involved in testing were unfamiliar with them.

"Ignorance has been more of am than the deliberative attempt to do bad things," said Mr. Fremer.

What was needed to get at that problem, the groups agreed, was a document written in accessible language, rather than technical jargon, and one that would focus on educational tests, rather than on all types of tests.

The organizations created an 18-member joint committee on testing practices to devise a new code that would "represent the spirit of a selected portion of the standards in a way that is meaningful to test takers and/or their parents or guardians."

The code addresses the responsibilities of both test developers and users, Mr. Fremer noted.

"Both developers and users have things they have to do" to ensure fairness, he said. "If you don't have a good test that is not adequately validated, there is no way you can make up for that with skillful use."

"On the other hand," he added, "if you have a good test that is not interpreted properly, that's not good either."

Specifically, the code states, test developers should provide information users need to select appropriate tests, and users should select tests that meet the purpose for which they are to be used.

In addition, it says, test developers should help users interpret scores correctly, and should "strive to make tests that are as fair as possible for test takers of different races, gender, ethnic backgrounds, or handicapping conditions."

Test users, it states, should interpret scores correctly and should select tests that are fair.

Both groups, it says, should inform test takers about test coverage and directions, and help them judge whether or not to take a test when it is optional. And they should inform test takers and their parents about: their rights to obtain copies of tests and answer sheets or to change scores; how long scores will be kept on file; and procedures for registering complaints.

Test critics last week called the code a useful first step in helping to protect consumers' rights. But they cautioned that it fails to address all possible abuses and lacks a means of enforcement.

"If all the maxims are followed, I have no doubt the overall quotient of goodness and virtue should be raised," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the former assistant U.S. secretary of education for educational research and improvement.

However, he added, "like Moses, the test makers have laid down 10 commandments they hope everyone will obey. That doesn't work very well in religion; adultery continues."

Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), argued that an independent body is needed to ensure that the firms live up to their principles.

"Stop lights are a great idea, but if police don't enforce them, people will run through them more than before," he said. "I'm pessimistic about the prospects of self-regulation."

Mr. Schaeffer added that he was "concerned" that the document contains "high-sounding general statements that test publishers are free to interpret as they see fit."

Daniel Koretz, senior social scientist for the rand Corporation, also noted that the code, even if it is enforced, would not prevent schools from misusing tests to raise scores.

Such practices, he argued, have led to the so-called "Lake Wobegon effect," in which the overwhelming majority of students score above national averages on nationally normed tests.

Public pressure to enforce the code may curb some abuses, Mr. Koretz noted, but "there are a lot of other pressures on schools to misuse tests."

"This is a big step by the industry to recognize and put their weight behind the recognition of the rights of consumers in testing," he added. "That's an important precedent. But they still have a long way to go."

Copies of the Code of Fair Testing Practices in Education may be obtained, free of charge, from the National Council on Measurement in Education, 1230 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

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