Improving the Tests Won’t Solve Larger Questions

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To the Editor:

Education Sector’s report “Margins of Error: The Education Testing Industry in the No Child Left Behind Era” accurately analyzes the serious limitations of the testing industry’s products, documenting the sad reality that state exams overemphasize low-level skills and thinking, with harmful effects on teaching and learning ("U.S. Should Do More to Aid States in Developing Tests, Report Says," Feb. 1, 2006).

But the report fails to grasp that modest improvements in test quality will not solve the larger problem that teaching to the test narrows and dumbs down the curriculum.

The report touts the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams. But MCAS reviews by the nonprofit Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education found that “the tests were very much like all the other standardized tests,” and that they “are likely to dampen student achievement by undermining quality.” Because the exams are “eminently coachable,” the group said, “test scores are likely to improve without much attention by teachers to genuine content.”

Similarly, teams of academics examined New York’s language arts, history, and science Regents exams, finding them low-level, often focused on trivia, and unrelated to college work.

Recently, I reviewed the MCAS and the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills language arts tests. For one section on each, I read only the questions, then answered eight or nine of the 12 items correctly. If I had gone back to skim the passage, my correct-answer rate would have been higher.

Last year, Achieve Inc. asked college professors what incoming first-year students need to be able to do in order to succeed. Most of their list cannot be assessed well by standardized exams: write extended works, critically read and respond to complex materials, reason scientifically, and be orally proficient.

If our nation is serious about high-quality education for all children, it cannot continue to mandate accountability programs tying high stakes to standardized tests. Rather than waste vast sums on more standardized exams, school systems, states, and the federal government should support professional development that focuses on classroom—and especially formative—assessment.

Monty Neill
Executive Director
National Center for Fair & Open Testing
Cambridge, Mass.

Vol. 25, Issue 25, Page 31

Published in Print: March 1, 2006, as Improving the Tests Won’t Solve Larger Questions

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