State Testing Needs Improvement, Study Finds

By Millicent Lawton — September 03, 1997 4 min read

Vermont is the only state with a system of measuring student achievement that is good enough to be copied by others, a testing watchdog group has concluded.

Most states do too much testing using multiple-choice exams that don’t encourage students to think critically, concludes the report due out this week from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, in Cambridge, Mass.

About one-third of the states need “a complete overhaul” of their systems of testing students, says the study. Another 17 states need “many major improvements.” And in two-thirds of the nation, “testing systems often impede, rather than enhance, genuine education reform,” the report asserts.

“What we found,” said Monty Neill, FairTest’s associate director, “is most state-assessment programs are not actually set up to support high-quality student learning.”

If the movement to hold all students to high academic standards is to succeed, he said, tests have to improve. “Assessments must do more than measure--primarily--recall and rote application.”

But the picture is not totally bleak, he said, because the remaining one-third of states “are making pretty good progress.” Ten years ago, Mr. Neill said, “we might not have found any.”

Follows 1995 Criteria

The study is believed to be the first-ever evaluation of the quality of assessment practices in nearly all the states. FairTest surveyed states about their testing programs during 1996, with a follow-up this year. It rated 47 states, omitting Delaware, Iowa, and Wyoming because they lack a full state testing program. The report, which cost about $60,000, was underwritten by the Ford Foundation of New York City and the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation.

Scoring the States

FairTest evaluated each state’s assessment system and assigned it to one of five levels, with Level 5 being the best.

Level 5

A model system.


Level 4

State assessment system needs modest improvement.

Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire

Level 3

State assessment system needs some significant improvements.

Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island

Level 2

State assessment system needs many major improvements.

Arkansas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin

Level 1

State assessment system needs a complete overhaul.

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia

Not scorable.

Delaware, Iowa, Wyoming

“Testing Our Children: A Report Card on State Assessment Systems’’ is available for $30 from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139; (617) 864-4810.

SOURCE: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

FairTest lauded Vermont in part because its assessments are based on state standards, rely very little on multiple-choice items, and include portfolios in two subject areas. The report also deems six other states--Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, and New Hampshire--to need only “modest improvement.”

FairTest, which is a leading critic of traditional standardized tests, made its judgments based on criteria endorsed in 1995 by an 85-member coalition of education and civil rights groups, the National Forum on Assessment. (“Education, Civil-Rights Coalition Backs Task-Based Assessments,” Dec. 13, 1995.)

The forum, which Mr. Neill co-chaired, endorsed the extensive use of performance assessment, in which students construct a response to a question or perform demonstrations. The new report argues that many states don’t use enough such assessments.

The study also takes a dim view of states’ reliance on norm-referenced testing, which judges students based on how other test-takers have fared on the exam in the past. FairTest and others prefer so-called criterion-referenced tests that measure achievement in terms of absolute levels of mastery.

Southern States Criticized

The FairTest report also says too many states use a single test as a mandatory hurdle, such as a graduation exam. In its recent report on state academic standards, however, the American Federation of Teachers commended states that tie graduation to a standards-based exam. (“AFT, Foundation Find Good and Bad in States’ Standards,” Aug. 6, 1997.)

According to FairTest, states also do a mediocre job of basing testing on their own standards, training teachers about testing, and adequately assessing special education students and students with limited English proficiency.

The report singles out most of the Southern states for what it sees as generally poor testing practices: widespread use of so-called high-stakes tests and norm-referenced tests, a relative scarcity of constructed-response and performance assessments, and heavy testing loads.

Mark D. Musick, the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, a 15-state cooperative that works to improve education in the South, said he agrees with the report’s conclusions about excessive norm-referenced testing and limited links to state standards. But he argued that the South has made greater strides in achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over the past 20 years than other regions have. And the Southern states continue to advance, he said.

“You have a still photo of a moving picture,” Mr. Musick said of the report, “because in our part of the country, half of the states have under way active reviews, evaluations, or changes in their state testing programs.”


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