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At NCSL, a Whole Lot of Talk About High-Stakes Testing

Accountability systems that tie high-stakes decisions such as student promotion or graduation to test results are only as good as the tests themselves, policy experts told lawmakers here at the annual convention of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Legislators keyed in on various aspects of the push for higher standards in education during the five-day gathering last month. They discussed strategies for improving low-performing schools, closing the achievement gap that separates black and Hispanic students from their white counterparts, and implementing high-stakes testing.

Linda McNeil, who co-directs an education research center at Rice University in Houston, launched a scathing critique of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, in one session that preceded Texas Gov. George W. Bush's appearance before the lawmakers.

Achievement among Texas students has become a contentious issue both in education circles and on the national political scene, as Gov. Bush, a Republican, has made education a central issue in his campaign for the presidency.

Research is divided, with some studies showing strong gains by Texas students, while other research has focused on the shortcomings of the state's accountability measures. ("Testing System in Texas Yet To Get Final Grade," May 31, 2000.)

Rising scores on the state tests are disguising real flaws in the Texas system, Ms. McNeil told a session at the July 15-20 conference. As examples of the system's problems, she cited low high school completion rates among minority students and large numbers of uncertified teachers.

"The TAAS is reducing the quality of instruction on the subjects tested, and the quality and quantity of the subjects not being tested," Ms. McNeil contended. "These [high-stakes] systems, when they are a substitute for common-sense investment in our public schools, are creating enormous damage."

A report last week from the RAND Corp. showing strong gains among Texas students added further fuel to the political debate.

Marc S. Tucker

In the same session, Marc S. Tucker, the president of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy, argued that high-stakes testing in and of itself is not flawed. But, he added, the tests used by many states— including Texas—are not rigorous or sophisticated enough.

Part of the problem, he said, is that states are spending only about $1 to $5 per student on tests that ultimately end up determining the curriculum in schools. He noted that teachers in the well-regarded Advanced Placement program, which uses $75 end-of-course exams, are rarely criticized for teaching to the test.

"You need to ask yourselves if you have a high-stakes test that's worth teaching to, like the AP tests," Mr. Tucker told the legislators. "If you have a system that's based on mastering only the most basic, low-level skills, the teaching of high-level skills will go out the window."

In his speech to lawmakers at the convention, Gov. Bush defended the Texas accountability system, saying he was proud of the progress minority students have made under it. He said that, as president, he would encourage the federal government to stay out of the day- to-day operation of schools, while ensuring that schools receiving federal aid demonstrate academic progress.

"In return for federal help, there must be strong accountability measures," Mr. Bush said. "And if we find that the federal government is subsidizing schools that don't work, we must give parents another path to take."

In another session, education experts told legislators that maintaining high standards for all students is a necessary step toward bringing minority and poor students up to the achievement levels of their white and better-off counterparts.

Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that promotes educational quality, presented statistics showing that Hispanic, African- American, and low-income students are more commonly placed in less challenging tracks and taught by unqualified teachers.

"We have organized our education system in this country so that we take kids who have less to begin with and systematically give them less," Ms. Haycock said. "We teach different kids different things."

In that same session, state Sen. Robert A. Gardner of Ohio noted that lawmakers are having to contend with a backlash against new tests and accountability measures. Ohio legislators have recently been a target of criticism by parents and other education observers who have complained that the state is moving too fast with its high-stakes testing program.

"We have to keep our feet to the fire," Mr. Gardner said. "We need to get rid of the general education curriculum. It is the worst thing we've done for American ducation."

-Jessica L. Sandham

Vol. 19, Issue 43, Page 24

Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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