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President Bush’s Proposal for School Testing

February 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: To analyze President Bush’s testing proposal, we turn to: Lisa Graham Keegan, the Arizona Superintendent of Education; Bill Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and an education policy adviser to President Bush’s campaign; Alfie Kohn, a former teacher and author of the book, “The Schools Our Children Deserve;” and Monty Neill, director of Fairtest, a group advocating testing reform that’s based in Boston. Welcome to you all.

Bill Evers you were an adviser to President Bush on this during the campaign. Flesh out for us what Secretary Paige was saying today. What’s the evidence that standardized testing of the kind that the president’s advocating improve and are the best way to improve student performance?

BILL EVERS: Well, the president is asking the states to test every child every year. The states would select these tests. The federal government would help pay for the development of them where that’s needed and the federal government has a national test that tests a sample of students that would have to be extended to sort of serve as a yardstick to see that the state tests were doing a good job.

And what we want to do with these tests is know where these children are and if we do it year by year, we can see the progress, we can see the gains, we can see the growth, we can see problems with teachers as well as students. And these tests, if they’re done well, can tell us simple, basic solid information about these children.

They can test complicated things. It’s not really the case that, say, multiple choice tests can only test things that are very basic. They can ask more complicated things. Don Hirsch gives the following example: Suppose you said that you were going to increase the radius of the Earth by three feet. How much would the circumference at the equator be increased? A, six feet. B, nine feet. C, 12 feet. D, 19 feet. E, 28 feet. Now, that’s actually a pretty difficult question. And yet it’s a simple multiple choice format. You can ask complex multi-step questions and get out what children really know.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Alfie Kohn turning to you, does this kind of testing which we have in some states, does it improve student performance over time?

ALFIE KOHN: No — just the opposite. In fact, the more teachers are pressured to raise scores on these tests, the more time they lack to help kids become critical, creative, curious thinkers. Let’s begin by understanding that at this point U.S. students are already tested to an extent that is unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

The notion that we need more tests now is preposterous according to the research that indicates that these tests even when you have tricky multiple choice questions tend to measure what matters least. And there is a fair amount of data suggesting just how limited these tests are. But it’s the human costs of this mania for testing that are showing up all over the country now where you’ve got kids sobbing, throwing up out of terror that they’re not going to pass. You have teachers — including some of our very best educators — who are leaving the profession because they’re being turned into test prep technicians.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you.

ALFIE KOHN: And you’ve got whole elements of the curriculum being squeezed out.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But go back to the original point you made. What did you mean when you said that it actually lowers standards?

ALFIE KOHN: It lowers standards because some of the richest and most meaningful curriculum units are disappearing from schools over the country. Every state I travel to I hear from teachers and increasingly from parents that their kids aren’t pursuing the kinds of rigorous interdisciplinary projects — looking at current events, bringing literature together with social sciences, reading rich novels — because instead they have to be drilled on the specific, forgettable facts and isolated skills that these tests tend to measure most. So, although it may seem paradoxical, the reality is that as the scores go up it’s often a bad sign by meaningful measures of real learning.

MARGARET WARNER: Lisa Keegan, I know you’re an advocate of testing. Arizona has tests very similar to what the president is proposing.. Is what Mr. Kohn is pointing out something that has happened there?

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: Absolutely not. Just the opposite — and I find that an outrageous view. Rich material taught to children includes how to write well, how to articulate a thought. Mathematics to the degree of algebra and geometry, those are gatekeeper skills. And what is shameful in this country is that we can predict by race and by wealth who is going to have the skills when they leave our schools to.

So to say that a test is forcing people into very narrow and very silly pursuits is a ridiculous statement. In fact, a test is merely measuring the richness of the curriculum we have out there for all students, not just for some students. And without that measurements every year for every child what we do is we leave groups of children behind as we have done, and we don’t find out about it until the end of the school career and everybody says, gosh how did that happen?

We know how to fix this. We watch the kids — we take a sample of a set group and if people are drilling items two weeks before the test, they’re not teaching well. You simply teach to the standards that are rich, and that are challenging. The tests take care of themselves. They are just a snapshot look every year at how well we’re teaching all children. So it’s all well and good to say the richness has dropped out of the curriculum.

There is absolutely no evidence for that. And I would ask specifically what is not being taught, and if algebra is something that should just not be taught anymore so that we can teach something else -and I’m not quite sure what that would be – knowing… knowing that algebra is specifically is sort of a gatekeeper in terms of economic future for children, I think it would be shameful not to know where they are.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Monty Neill, where do you come down on this, this issue, this point about what the impact of testing is and would be?

MONTY NEILL: Ms. Keegan is simply wrong. There is a lot of evidence first that where you have high stakes in important tests in fact, that’s what teachers do. They teach to those tests. And in fact the tests are not very high quality. Even an organization like Achieve, which exists literally to focus on these kinds of state tests has concluded that virtually none of the state tests are good matches for the state standards.

Now, the results of teaching to the test are really a disaster. In fact, if you look at the states in this country that have the most testing and the highest stakes attached to those tests, what you find out is that those states have the lowest scores on the national test that Mr. Evers mentioned; they have the least likelihood of improving on that national test; they have the highest dropout rates and they send the fewest students on to college.

Texas is an example of that. It’s got one of the highest dropout rates in the country. Houston — where Mr. Paige comes from — has just about the highest dropout rate of any city in the country. So what’s going on with this mad testing mania is we are not educating our children. They don’t get to college and do well if their focus is testing and they often are simply driven out of school. That is a just simply mad way to talk about school reform. It’s as if a business going into some new area said, what’s the worst companies out there – let’s copy those

MARGARET WARNER: Bill Evers, how do you see the evidence?

BILL EVERS: Well when I look at my own state of California, which has very rich standards — standards that have been rated the highest in the country and even higher in mathematics than Japan — and I see the schools and the teachers around the state gearing up to try to meet these and make our students in California of world-class caliber, and I know, because I myself have participated in developing the test questions in history and in mathematics that are linked to, oriented to these standards, I know that they do in fact, reach these standards, meet these standards –are based on the standards.

I think it’s working, and I think this sort of thing, if you have a good test, and a teacher is teaching the content that’s covered in the test, I think that sort of teaching to the test is good. If you’ve been giving some sort of test — the same test for many years — and the teacher happens to know the questions and is drilling the children on those questions, well, that’s obviously not really performing the diagnosis we want. It’s not encouraging the children to learn more. That’s the kind of cheating and no one wants to see that happen.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Alfie Kohn is part of answer who designs the test and what kind of tests they are, or do you object to just annual testing for these kids — period?

ALFIE KOHN: Annual testing is a problem even if the measures are reasonably good. Because when you have tests every year the expectation then becomes that all kids must develop in lockstep fashion. To say that every kid has to be at the same place at age seven violates every bit of understanding we have of developmental realities. But some tests are worse than others.

Even multiple choice questions that are tricky can’t give kids a chance to explain their answers much less generate answers, so they can’t give us a sense of what kids understand. If a test it timed than what it’s really measuring is speed not thoughtfulness. Even some essay questions are really getting kids to drill to do a kind of cookie cuter five-paragraph essay that they think will lead to a high score.

The reality is that most of the tests being used right now — even the ones that are aligned to the curriculum and the standards in a given state, which is a minority – are undermining some of the kinds of teaching that teachers I see all over the place would love to do. Just a few weeks ago I was in Ms. Keegan’s state of Arizona where I met a former teacher of the year in Tucson who quit the profession because she realized she was being turned into a… a kind of test prep technician, instead of a professional educator, and her kids were losing out.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Ms. Keegan – we’re almost out of time — respond to that.

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: Well, first of all, there may be an individual who feels that; that would be very unfortunate. What I see are great educational leaders using this as a tool and particularly in the inner city making sure they know where all their kids are and moving those kids along. To say that you test every year, that that is harmful, that’s the only way to judge ourselves on gain rather than just a moment in time. So the only way to be fair about progress is to have that testing done every year and for all kids, particularly in the inner city where we have lost these kids before.

There is no alternative to a diagnostic. You never hear people walk in to the doctor and say, don’t bother with the x-ray and the blood test; it takes too much time; just get with my treatment program. We need to know where kids are. This testing is helping us and it is turning educators into real leaders for their kids. It’s having an extremely positive effect in Arizona.

MARGARET WARNER: Monty Neill, very brief response from you.

MONTY NEILL: We continue to believe that these tests undermine and not improve the quality of education. They leave poor children and children of color further behind. Rich schools do not teach to standardized tests. And we would encourage parents and the general public to get more informed on this issue, to let their congressmen know what they think about this issue and to, frankly, don’t participate in these testing programs that hurt their children.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you all very much. Thanks for being with us.