homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussiontesting our schools
homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussion
collage of testing photos
Testing. Teaching. Learning?

What are the uses and misuses of tests? Do higher test scores mean better schools? How does the intense pressure to raise test scores affect the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom? These are some of the questions FRONTLINE set out to explore in interviews with educators, policymakers, and educational testing experts across the country. What we found is that although standards-based reform has widespread support, experts see a danger in our reliance on standardized tests as the primary measure of school quality. Without the right kinds of tests, they say, and without an understanding of their proper uses, we may do more harm than good to public education in America.



In the Classroom
In the course of making "Testing Our Schools," correspondent John Merrow and producer John Tulenko interviewed teachers and school administrators who are grappling with the realities of increased testing and its effects -- for better and worse -- on the quality of teaching and learning. Here are excerpts from selected interviews with educators in two states, Virginia and California, where testing has already transformed what goes on in the classroom.


Testing, Assessment, and Excellence
"Today we are rushing headlong in search of the 'Holy Grail' of rising test scores," writes John Merrow. "Many unfortunate decisions are being made as pressure for 'accountability' overwhelms common sense." This excerpt from Merrow's new book, Choosing Excellence (2001), explores the rise of high-stakes testing, the meaning of accountability, and the dangers to education of too great a faith in tests.


Interview: James Popham
A professor emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles and a former test maker, Popham is a noted expert on educational testing. In this interview he discusses the uses and misuses of standardized tests, the pitfalls of a public policy that fails to take the nature of tests into account, and why the results of traditional standardized achievement tests are not accurate measures of school quality.


Interview: Audrey Qualls
An associate professor of education at the University of Iowa and co-author of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, one of the most widely administered tests in the country, Qualls tells FRONTLINE that the tests she has developed were never intended to be used for high-stakes purposes.


Interview: David Driscoll
David Driscoll is the Massachusetts commissioner of education and a longtime supporter of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the state's customized -- and highly regarded -- test required for graduation from high school. In this interview with FRONTLINE, Driscoll offers his arguments in favor of the high-stakes exam, discusses steps Massachusetts is taking to address flaws in the test, and explains why he believes the MCAS is a fair and valid test.


Interview: George Madaus
George Madaus is a professor of education and public policy at Boston College, where he's also a senior fellow with The National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy. He has analyzed the testing industry for more than 30 years. Madaus tells FRONTLINE that tests can and should be used to hold schools accountable, but not students, and that it is "bad practice" to judge a student's performance on the basis of tests scores alone.


The Testing Industry's Big Four
A look at the four companies -- three test publishers and one scoring firm -- that dominate the market for making and scoring standardized achievement tests.


In Your State
What are the standards and testing policies in your state? How does your state compare to others on the National Assessment of Educational Progress? Use this interactive map for a snapshot of how your state tests, and find links to information on standards and testing in all 50 states.

links

Organizations


Achieve Inc.
Achieve Inc. is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to help states raise academic standards, measure performance against those standards, establish clear accountability for results, and strengthen public confidence in the American education system. See "Testing Policy Brief: Setting the Record Straight" (Summer 2000). This policy paper praises recent developments toward a new generation of state tests that are designed to enhance learning and measure students' knowledge more accurately than traditional standardized tests.


FairTest
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), is an advocacy organization working to ensure that evaluation of students and school workers is fair, open, and educationally sound. This site contains several fact sheets on such topics as child readiness for tests, referencing techniques, and freedom of information. See: "How Standardized Testing Damages Education" and "What's Wrong With Standardized Tests?"


Committee for Economic Development (CED)
CED is an independent organization of business and education leaders dedicated to policy research on major economic and social issues. On Feb. 20, 2002, CED released Measuring What Matters: Using Assessment and Accountability to Improve Student Learning (you can download the executive summary and the full report, both in PDF format). The report "hails testing and accountability as key to improving student learning." But it cautions that "tests are a means, not an end, to school reform."

Reports and Commentary


Education Week: Assessment
An overview of the issues surrounding testing and assessment, with a collection of articles from the Education Week archive and links to related resources on the Web.


"That Sinking Feeling," by John Merrow
"Bad tests and overreliance on test results are enemies of good standards. Just look at what happened in Atlantis." (Education Week, Oct. 17, 2001)


"Standardized Achievement Tests: Misnamed and Misleading," by W. James Popham
"Concerns about students' test scores will escalate dramatically if Congress requires states to give standardized achievement tests each year to all students in grades 3-8. We should take a harder look at these tests and their uses." (Education Week, Sept. 19, 2001)


"Standardized Testing and Its Victims," by Alfie Kohn
"When someone emphasizes the importance of 'higher expectations' for minority children, we might reply, 'Higher expectations to do what? Bubble-in more ovals correctly on a bad test?' ... The more that poor children fill in worksheets on command (in an effort to raise their test scores), the further they fall behind affluent kids who are more likely to get lessons that help them understand ideas. If the drilling does result in higher scores, the proper response is not celebration, but outrage: The test results may well have improved at the expense of real learning." (Education Week, Sept. 27, 2000)


"High Stakes Are For Tomatoes," by Peter Schrag
"Statewide testing of students, with penalties for failure, has run into opposition from parents across the political spectrum." (The Atlantic Monthly, August 2000.)


"None of the Above: The Test Industry's Failures"
"The drive to raise academic standards in public schools has led to a boom in standardized testing. ... These articles examine the largely unregulated industry of test makers and scorers and the costly errors they have made." (The New York Times, May 20-21, 2001)


"Life Story of a Multiple-Choice Question"
"Every year, test-making companies churn out tens of thousands of questions to help schools assess how well America's school children are learning their lessons. Here's how one of those questions made its way from a science teacher's office to a student exam room." (The Washington Post, May 25, 2000)


"Reading Between the Lines," by Stephen Metcalf
"Not surprisingly, the Bush legislation has ardent supporters in the testing and textbook publishing industries. Only days after the 2000 election, an executive for publishing giant NCS Pearson addressed a Waldorf ballroom filled with Wall Street analysts. According to Education Week, the executive displayed a quote from President-elect Bush calling for state testing and school-by-school report cards, and announced, 'This almost reads like our business plan.'" (The Nation, Jan. 28, 2002)


"In Testing, One Size May Not Fit All"
"On Feb. 21, two weeks before Kyle [Stofle] and other 10th graders were to take [California's high school graduation exam], Judge Charles R. Breyer of Federal District Court ruled that students with learning disabilities had the right to special treatment. ... The question of how far to accommodate students with learning disabilities on college entrance tests like the SAT has become a familiar one. ... But with more than a dozen states putting graduation exams into effect in the next three years -- and others requiring new tests for promotion to the next grade -- the debate has become broader and more urgent, with some education experts predicting that new legal challenges are inevitable." (The New York Times, March 18, 2002.)

Research


ERIC: Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation
The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), the government-supported clearinghouse for educational literature, offers an area focused on assessment and evaluation. It includes numerous articles, along with links to other relevant resources.


The Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy (CSTEEP)
CSTEEP is an educational research organization located at Boston College in the School of Education. Since its inception in 1980, CSTEEP has conducted research on testing, evaluation, and public policy; studies to improve school assessment practices; and international comparative research.


National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST)
Funded by the U.S. Department of Education and based at UCLA, CRESST researches testing and standards issues for K-12 students. The reports section on its website lists the center's publications (in PDF format), mainly addressed to the educational research community. The center also maintains a "Parents' Page," with articles and resources intended for non-specialists.

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