To the Editor:
In "It's About Teaching and Learning--Not Testing" (Aug. 5, 1998), U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Gerald N. Tirozzi builds an argument for the imperative of voluntary national assessments in reading and math on a false dualism. What critics of national testing understand is that issues of teaching, learning, and curriculum cannot be separated from assessments. Of course, this is something that I'm sure Mr. Tirozzi and other advocates of national testing and standardized curriculum well understand.
Claiming that local school communities have a "limited view of reality" without national assessments, Mr. Tirozzi says that teaching and learning cannot be improved unless parents, teachers, students, school boards, and communities have a single "national barometer" of student achievement. What Mr. Tirozzi wants is for stakeholders in local school communities to have yet another level of assessment on top of the mountains of test results that are already available for this purpose.
So what's wrong with that? This vision of how to improve teaching and learning essentially makes stakeholders in local schools spectators with access to more detailed box scores, rather than central participants in the reform process.
National testing schemes and other standards-based reforms divert attention away from the conditions of learning and teaching that must be changed if schools are to be improved. The seductive lure of national testing and standards is that the problems public schools face can be solved by merely being tough-minded, rather than investing in the improvement of schools and redressing the contexts of local schools that include joblessness and diminished tax bases. Mr. Tirozzi's analysis obscures the fact that no reform effort will succeed in an educational system in which a number of select schools suffer from an embarrassment of riches in comparison with those that function without qualified teachers, adequate numbers of books, and in decrepit and dangerous buildings that lack classroom space. National testing does nothing to address the funding inequities that produce gross educational inequalities among schools except divert money to efforts that would further undermine local control of schools.
The people that know children best--families and teachers--have too little power to effect change in their schools. Standards-based reforms, like national testing, exacerbate this by taking authority away from local school communities. Teachers and communities without the authority and resources to bring their collective intellect and judgment to bear on matters as important as the education of children cannot be expected to model what it means to be responsible citizens in a democratic society.
A national testing program would contribute to the creation of standardized, "one size fits all" schools representing the views and interests of elite policymakers rather than cultivating multiple visions of schooling that will emerge from public deliberations about what schools should be. If we're serious about improving teaching and learning, let's focus on transforming the conditions that limit our achievement of high standards, redefine budget priorities, and give more authority to local school communities to make decisions about educational objectives and how they will be assessed.
E. Wayne Ross
Associate Professor School of Education
State University of New York at Binghamton
Vol. 18, Issue 3, Page 40Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Letters