Right answers not all on tests

May 27, 2001|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Parenting makes education experts of us all.

I realize this now that I find myself, as a parent, sympathizing with a new wave of protests by some of my fellow parents against high-stakes testing.

President Bush is proposing, as Education Secretary Rod Paige puts it, "a system of high standards, annual testing against those standards of every child in third through eighth grade, and a system of accountability that makes schools responsible for results."

Sounds good, at least at first. Who could argue against the need for kids to meet basic standards or for schools to be held accountable for student success?

Unfortunately, while questions can be shaped to yield answers that fit neatly into little boxes on a test sheet, children are not shaped nearly as easily.

Or, as my late schoolteacher grandmother put it, "Every child learns differently."

Right you were, Grandma. I learned that quickly enough when my son, now 11, was falling behind his peers in his reading scores in the second grade, much to the alarm of his mother and I.

Fortunately, filmmaker George Lucas re-released "Star Wars" at about that time. My son, like innumerable children before him, was hooked. Big time.

This was fortunate because, when he later noticed that there were "Star Wars" books in a local bookstore, I heard him say something I had not heard him say before:

"Dad? Would you buy me a book?"

Glory hallelujah, yes.

Soon my kid immersed himself in many "Star Wars" books. Within three weeks, his teacher remarked that he suddenly had lurched from performing below his grade level in reading to well ahead. She wanted to know why.

"Thank George Lucas," I said.

My son, it turned out, knew how to read. He simply had not been handed anything that he really felt like reading.

With that, I received a simple but dramatic example of how children who seem to be foundering educationally can blossom suddenly when something clicks inside them.

The greatest gift a teacher can give is to inspire a desire to learn. Instead, teachers and principals increasingly are pressured to drill kids in ways to pass standardized tests.

Unfortunately, left to spend their limited resources on meeting new state or federal standards, school districts are bound to take the cheapest and easiest course. That often means they increasingly will make the tests not only the main measure but the only measure of a child's educational progress.

That one-size-fits-all approach to education poses a problem that can only become worse when such tests are given annually.

The Bush administration is right to call for more accountability for low-performing schools. But many leaders in the educational and psychological-testing community caution that such tests should not be the sole or even the primary basis for high-stakes decisions that lead to promotions, graduation or college acceptance.

Yet the Bush administration is wedded to quite the opposite idea, that annual testing is not only helpful but essential to educational progress.

And, if you don't agree, Education Secretary Paige says you're some sort of snooty elitist who wants to keep kids trapped in a "broken system."

That's what Mr. Paige declared in a Mother's Day essay in the Washington Post: "Anyone who opposes annual testing of children is an apologist for a broken system of education that dismisses certain children and classes of children as unteachable."

Coming from a man known for his even-handedness, Mr. Paige's remarks take a surprisingly intemperate slap. In fact, opponents to annual school testing include many people who live and work with students in a variety of neighborhoods, from the most affluent to the most disadvantaged.

They include parents in wealthy suburbs like Scarsdale, N.Y., and Marin County, Calif., in factory towns like Rochester, N.Y., and Oakland, Calif., and college towns like Ithaca, N.Y.

Critical organizations like the National Center for Fair and Open Testing keep running tallies on its Web site, www.FairTest.org, of protests across the country. In response, a leading proponent of annual testing, the Business Roundtable, an association of major corporate chiefs, offers a strategy booklet for combating the "Testing Backlash" at its Web site, www.brtable.org.

I have an idea for combating testing backlash: Let's focus less on the quantity of assessment tests and more on the quality of the results they yield.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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