Higher test scores come at a high price to education

July 11, 2006|By JOHN MONAHAN

Great news: Test scores for Maryland students went up. Politicians, education officials and school administrators have been congratulating themselves on the achievement. Even the scores in Baltimore went up. Do you know what that means? Absolutely nothing.

That's right, it doesn't mean anything because the test doesn't measure or predict anything. Higher scores don't mean that children are better educated, are more likely to graduate or have a better chance of getting into college or have a well-paying job.

We're told that the tests measure academic achievement. Education officials, while scrambling to find cover from the No Bureaucrat Left Behind law, like to tout these rising scores, saying they indicate the improvement of education in the state.

What they don't tell you is that the increasing scores measure only the schools' ability to prepare students for the tests. The schools are frequently putting all of their energy and resources into test preparation, to the exclusion of everything else.

I experienced an illustrative example of this while teaching high school biology. In the perennial struggle to cram an ever-increasing curriculum into a single school year, I was trying to prioritize which units to emphasize and which ones to survey quickly. I assumed that much of the human body unit was redundant because all of my 11th-grade biology students had taken health class. I was horrified to discover that none of them had. These were city 11th-graders who hadn't yet gotten a basic knowledge of how to keep themselves healthy or prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. The reason for this flagrant omission was simple: There was no High School Assessment for health.

Incoming freshmen must pass the tests in English, algebra, American government and biology in order to graduate. Everything from the morning announcements to their class schedules to the length of class periods was directed toward the goal of getting them to pass these four tests.

School administrators are highly motivated to do this because the scores are used to evaluate the schools. Funding, staffing, even the future of whether some schools will exist hinges upon the scores in these four areas.

Students were told every day, both directly and subtly, that all anyone cared about were the test scores. Weeks of valuable and limited class time were taken up preparing for the tests. Students were repeatedly given practice questions from previous tests. The entire curriculum was designed with the goal of improving test scores.

None of the higher-ups seemed terribly concerned about whether the students understood the material. Topics that the test emphasized were to be emphasized in class. For instance, a great deal of the biology test features questions about the chemistry of living things, so biology class was moved from the ninth-grade curriculum to the 11th grade in order for the students to have chemistry first.

Evolution is one of the most fundamental elements to understanding modern biology, but only one or two questions on the biology assessments were about evolution. It was consequently de-emphasized in the curriculum. Classification, animal behavior, the fossil record - all were given short shrift. Why? They're not on the test.

I'm sure this phenomenon is not isolated to biology. Ask an algebra teacher how much of the test is algebra. Ask a social studies teacher which aspects of American government the test emphasizes and which it omits.

This type of test-driven mania calls into question the real goal of education. Is it to give students a fundamental understanding of all of the subjects they will need to be informed, healthy, successful citizens? Or is the role of education simply to raise test scores so politicians and bureaucrats will have something to brag about?

John Monahan teaches science at Patterson High School in Baltimore. His e-mail is gurpsman@hotmail.com.

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