School testing

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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks that the emphasis on school testing may be producing an academic arms race – and he’s not sure that kids are the winners.

(Gilbert) A German friend complained recently about how poorly students in his country did on recent PISA tests – worse even than students in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and way behind those in Finland and Canada, he said. I hadn’t heard of PISA before — the “Program for International Student Assessment.” It’s a new set of tests that measure the knowledge and skills of 15-year olds in the world’s principal industrialized countries.

PISA scores are a big deal in Europe. A lot of finger-pointing goes on when scores aren’t what people think they should be. Just as we Americans can’t believe that students in Singapore can beat our students in math, Germans can’t believe that students in Canada can top their students in reading.

It feels like we’re in an academic arms race. And I worry that some people and private companies have interests beyond simply improving kids’ education. Politicians are happy to have an easy target such as schools to bash. Private companies that write and score the tests are happy to have more customers. And now other companies have turned to guiding teachers in prepping students for the tests. They’re happy that the new federal “No Child Left Behind” act has educators across the country jittery about mandated testing.

Consider the case of the Princeton Review. The Princeton Review has traditionally made its money by prepping kids to take the SAT. But a few weeks ago it made a big splash in the K-12 test world. It announced the results of its test of the tests — ratings of the testing systems used in each of the 50 states.

I doubt that this study was disinterested academic research. If you go to the Princeton Review’s web site, you’ll see that the company has expanded from SAT prep to state assessment prep. “” is the name of the Princeton Review product, and “ongoing formative assessment” is the tag line for its “teach to the test” system. The Review’s web site proclaims, “In three simple steps, educators can use Homeroom to raise students’ state test scores and improve overall academic performance.”

Now, I like a good test as much as anyone. Schools should be held accountable for results. But you can’t produce a good test system through a federal mandate. And I doubt that we want the Princeton Review telling us what our kids should know by the fourth grade.

Howard Dean is right in saying that the federal No Child Left Behind act, with its complex testing and accountability regulations, is a disaster in the making. Vermont was well on its way to having a comprehensive statewide assessment system that does what good tests are supposed to do: give educators and community members the information they need to improve their schools for kids.

We all need to remember that test results are not an end. They’re just a beginning. After the numbers are in, teachers, principals, curriculum directors, school board members, parents, and community members need to roll up their sleeves and get to work. The real key to school improvement is you and me working with others in our local communities to expand kids’ opportunities to learn.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer an parent who is active in education issues.

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