Assessment Opinion

Solution or Fad?

By Peter D. Rosenstein — March 07, 2001 6 min read
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Tests should be used to determine what a child knows—not for punitive purposes.

It seems that the education world is now completely focused on testing and assessment. To the point that, if you don’t follow the discussion daily, you might think this is the latest idea-fad, like “schools without walls,” or cooperative learning, or any of a number of other ideas that were appropriate for some but degenerated into fads when they became vehicles to solve all our children’s problems.

President Bush has recommended that we require testing of all children in grades 3-8 each year, as if this is something that teachers have never done and that will, on its own, save our education system. The bigger problem, however, is that both the president and the states are looking at how we can use testing and assessment to accomplish more than simply finding out how students are doing and giving them the help they need. They are looking at testing and assessment as a way to reward or penalize schools, teachers, principals, and maybe even the building janitors, if some connection can be found between what they do and low test scores.

The feeling seems to be that, if we are to spend so much of a student’s time and the public’s money on these tests, they ought to do more than monitor whether children can read or do math problems.

My expertise in this area differs little from that of most pundits: It’s been a long time since I was in a classroom as teacher or student. But back in the dark ages, when I graduated from college, I did teach school for three years in Harlem. And I remember that I could tell how well each of my students was doing at any point during the year without the aid of a statewide test. I tried to give the children I taught an enriched learning experience that challenged them to understand there was more to the world than what existed within their own neighborhoods. I wanted to instill in them the belief that education would give them the keys to experiencing those wider opportunities. Back then, I used cluster grouping (though we didn’t call it that) to engage children at different levels in my classroom. There were 34 children in the class, and my goal was that each one of them would go home every day having learned something new. I met with parents regularly and even called their homes if something arose that couldn’t wait for a school visit.

In those days, New York City used various tests in its schools to determine how well children were doing. And there was the state regents’ exams for high school students graduating with a regents’ diploma.

Today, New York believes all children should pass a regents’ exam. Yet, I can’t help remembering Edwin, a gifted artist I taught in the 6th grade. What good would passing a regents’ exam in, say, chemistry, have done Edwin? I don’t know. Back then, we used such standardized tests as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to gauge how our students compared with a national norm in certain grades. And I tested my own students regularly on what we were learning in class, to see if they were making progress and whether or not they understood what I was teaching. My principal also checked on me regularly, to see what lesson plans I was using and how my kids were performing.

Was this situation ideal? Of course not. I would have liked, for instance, for an art teacher to have been able to give Edwin some extra help. And a remedial-reading teacher for some of my students would have been a godsend, as would having a place to send my very advanced math students for extra tutoring each day. But would I have known more about how well my kids were learning if I had spent the entire year teaching to one test? I don’t think so.

I’m not against testing. But I am against using test results in the wrong way. Testing should be used to determine what a child knows; the results should help the teacher decide whether that child needs remedial help or is ready to move on to new topics and challenges. Results should be reported to parents, but if the additional services a child needs aren’t available in the school, then the results don’t mean much.

Tests can determine at what depth a child is learning. And, when we test children after using varying teaching strategies, the results can help us determine which method is best serving the child.

But test results should not be used for punitive purposes. When they are, school leaders may be tempted to make academically indefensible decisions based on fear, rather than the best interests of their students.

I’m not against testing. But I am against using test results in the wrong way.

In a recently reported incident in Florida, for example, one principal’s fear of the negative consequences for both herself and her school that would follow a drop in combined test scores led her to decide against recommending three academically talented children for an advanced program at a nearby magnet school. The loss of these students’ scores would have lowered the all-important school average on mandatory tests.

Assessments should be based on the progress of individual students, not on cumulative results. If large numbers of students in a school aren’t making progress, then assistance for teachers and principals should be offered to see what the problems are and how to make changes. We shouldn’t wait for three years, as the president and some members of Congress suggest, and then give a few of the parents a way out of the school. If we do that, what happens to the children whose parents don’t take advantage of the option to leave? Are they doomed to remain in a school made even worse than it was, due to loss of funds? It is those children, the ones whose parents for one reason or another don’t or can’t get involved, who are most at risk.

At the other end of the testing spectrum, we find children who are able to pass a 4th grade test in the 2nd grade, or an 8th grade test in the 4th grade. What will we do for those students when testing uncovers their need for advanced instruction and the nurturing of their talents? Will we make proper accommodations for them, or will we simply leave them where they are because their scores make the school, its teachers, and the principal look good? This is a major issue for nearly 3 million children in this country.

If we don’t spend the money it takes to provide remedial programs for children who need them, all the testing in the world won’t make a difference.

Testing and assessment are important issues. We need ways to judge how well children are learning. But if we don’t spend the money it takes to provide remedial programs for those children who need them, and advanced work for those who need that, all the testing in the world won’t make a difference.

We still face a situation in most schools where teachers aren’t able to routinely attend continuing education seminars because the district can’t find or afford substitute teachers for their classes; where classrooms don’t have adequate textbooks or supplies; where buildings are so ancient that no enterprise other than a school would be willing to occupy them. This is what must change if testing and assessment are to be worthwhile. And the answer isn’t to abandon the public schools for private or charter schools, or to allow some parents to opt out of the system and take the public’s money with them.

Let’s not turn testing and assessment into the next educational fad. Let’s make them work positively for children as part of a new decade of full support for public schools. That includes decent teacher salaries, teacher-competency testing and adequate continuing-education opportunities, good textbooks, appropriate uses of technology, challenging curricula, a desire to teach each child in a way that will allow him or her to reach full potential, and the active partnership and support of parents.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Solution or Fad?


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