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The Testing Bubble Bursts | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

The Testing Bubble Bursts

Looks like the $2.3 billion standardized testing industry forgot to devise a much needed self-examination.

Two weeks ago, after two students paid fees to have their SATs rescored by hand, it was discovered that 4,000 students had received scores that were incorrectly low. A week later, the College Board announced that another batch of 1,600 exams had to be rescanned.The Washington Post now reports that another 27,000 exams still need to be rechecked.

Also two weeks ago, CTB/McGraw-Hill acknowledged that questions from sample tests were mistakenly placed on the actual exam used by the NCLB regime to assess schools and students for 400,000 7th & 8th graders in New York.

And the banner month for the industry ended with the Educational Testing Service reaching an $11 million settlement with 27,000 people who were wrongly scored on their teacher certification exams, including 4,100 who were failed incorrectly.

As Robert Schaeffer, Public Education Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) puts it: "If you're waiting for the other shoe to drop – this is more like a centipede."

The testing establishment has predictably responded with calls for more oversight, as reported by Karen Arenson in the New York Times.

"We need accountability," said George Madaus of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy.

"It's pretty clear, I guess, that the quality control issues need to be looked at again," said College Board advisory committee member, Dr. Robert Linn.

"We need accuracy and security and all these things," added New York State senator Kenneth LaValle.

But are we even asking the right questions about standardized testing? For starters, consider how dramatically standardized testing has been transformed of late.

Diane Ravitch writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education that until recently high school teachers and college professors wrote, graded, and periodically revised the tests. Now state and federal governments under bureaucratic pressures set and change the standards regularly rather than professional educators.

Ken Himmelman, Dean of Admissions at Bennington College, also notes a contemporary economic bias: "The college board was designed to level the playing field in 1900. But the more important the test has become, the more wealthier students and schools pay to prepare for it…so now it just reinforces the economic divide."

Schaeffer concurs with this assessment, noting that some families pay as much as $20,000 for individual testing coaches.

Educators describe the pressures surrounding the tests as "hysteria," "a frenzy," and "a vicious circle." Parents want their kids to attend schools that rank highly in magazines like the U.S. News and World Report. The magazines use test scores to determine the rankings. And schools want higher scores in order to attain a higher ranking.

Colman McCarthy reports on a similar phenomena in the lower grades fostered by the NCLB regime. "Most everyone is fearful of someone in power right above," McCarthy writes in the Washington Post. "Students worry about teachers, teachers worry about principals, principals worry about school boards, school boards worry about politicians, and politicians worry about the voters…a deviator must ask: Will I be whacked by that power-wielder just above me? Caution reigns."

"No Child Left Behind is a classic example of testing abuse," Schaeffer says. "These standardized tests are used to rate schools, fire people, transfer kids to other schools. The Joint Standards for Education and Psychological Measurements say no test should ever be used as the sole factor to make educational decisions but politicians and institutions are doing just that."

And with this omnipresence of fear the impact on learning is clear. McCarthy offers, "Tests represent fear-based learning….Desire-based learning happens when teachers deal in combustibles, when fires are lit and students burn to explore ideas that have nothing to do with what testocrats require."

Himmelman recognizes a similar loss, "Who is thinking about the student in this debate? Nobody. They're thinking about the business of higher education. That's the tragedy here. We need to be asking, ‘How do we teach people? How do we encourage thinking and learning?' And we're not doing that enough."

Bennington has decided to abandon the test score requirement beginning next year. "We want interesting kids who are engaged in what they are learning," Himmelman said.

There is reason to hope that Bennington is part of a growing trend. FairTest reports that in 1987, 51 schools did not require applicants to submit SAT scores. Now over 730 schools are test score-optional. These colleges emphasize factors such as high school academic record, essays, recommendations, personal interviews and student interests instead of standardized testing. Schaeffer anticipates that an additional 6 to 10 schools will soon announce that they are going this route as well.

"This is a wake-up call that we put far too much faith in these fallible tests," Schaeffer says. "They were never designed to make high-stake education decisions. The tests can never be fair, accurate, and precise enough to be used in that manner."

Maybe it's time more schools leave the $2.3 billion testing industry behind and move on from its fear-based, profit-driven, mind-closing culture.

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