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Will more testing and tougher accountability change public education for the better?


I am keeping my son from taking Massachusetts' 3rd grade reading test this week because I can see no diagnostic or other value to this test, particularly when the results won't come back until he's in 4th grade.

Ted Sizer's comment about the pernicious effects of this business model of public education (and remember, private school students are largely spared this test insanity) hit home for me. What are we teaching our children about the value of learning with all this emphasis on winning the test game, whether our children actually know how to solve problems or not? I see us moving farther and farther away from imparting the value of actually learning something, rather than simply making the cut score and moving on to the next sorting facility in hopes of staying in the group that gets the spoils in our society.

I fear for our society and our world when these test-prepped students get out of school, having been thoroughly indoctrinated with the notion that there is one right answer to every question, and there job is simply to figure out what those in positions of authority want them to fill in on the "test." Is there one right answer to solving the tragic situation in the Middle East? Is there one right answer on how to live a fulfilling and productive life in America? Where will the problem solvers come from if we produce nothing but people who know how to choose the right multiple choice answer?

Lisa Guisbond
brookline, ma


As a Canadian, I am absolutely baffled why Americans are so concerned about measuring the results of their school systems.

If the schools have been failing American children for the last "generation and a half", how has American influence spread throughout the world at the same time? It couldn't have been all those poorly educated Americans and their inventions, medicines, and technology could it?

I'm sure there are many things that need to be improved in your schools, some urgently. I'm sure that the same is true in Japan or Australia.

I find it more than a little amusing that business leaders are complaining about failing schools and selling the tests at the same time. If the C.E.O of I.B.M thinks education is so important maybe he should have been asked what university Bill Gates went to and what company sold him D.O.S. for $5,000.

Dave Jones
vancouver, canada


Unfortunately testing is now needed to ensure public education is a quality service to parents, the taxpayers, and most importantly--the students. We shouldn't have to do it but since the quality of public education is so poor and teachers aren't doing their jobs, then I guess we're going to have to so we can weed out the bad teachers and schools and keep the good teachers and schools.

We need more teaching in the classroom and less social engineering. We need teachers spending classroom time teaching subjects like English, Math, Science, Geography, and Historical Facts, rather than trying to promote their own political and social philosophies.

Too many students are graduating with high school diplomas and college degrees and afterwards getting nothing more than minimum wage jobs. Why is this? Because employers are realizing that the current public education system is not providing society with quality workers worthy of being paid a living wage.

We shouldn't be teaching so that students will pass a test. We should be teaching so that students learn what's needed to be successful as adults.

If teachers aren't going to be professionals and teach students what they need to learn in order to succeed in life, then we as a society will have to enforce testing to ensure teachers do their jobs. If teachers acted like professionals and did their jobs right--like my church school teachers did--then we wouldn't need testing.

If public schools and teachers want to be treated like professionals--with respect and courtesy, then they need to act like professionals. Otherwise, we as taxpayers and parents have no choice but to require standardized testing.

Peter Ringering
boise, id


Standardized tests have been around for a long time. I took them when I was a student in the late 1960s and 1970s. What has changed, for the worse in my opinion, is that there is too much emphasis placed on testing to the point where little actual learning and education is going on these days.

This test obsession seems to be the result of almost no one wanting to fix the real problems that beset public education and really the entire society at large. If adults, parents especially, would instill a sense of personal responsibility rather than entitlement into our children, that would be a start. There is no doubt that we must hold teachers accountable, as a fully qualified chemistry teacher, I strongly believe in ensuring that ALL teachers know what they are doing before being allowed to work in a classroom. The problem is simply that we don't want to admit that we have lowered the educational standards over the years while ignoring why many quality teachers leave the profession. I can assure you, as one who just left and having met many people in graduate school this year who left teaching, it is NOT for the money. Every one of us loved teaching but we could not endure the disrespect from almost all sides nor the increasing frustrations and pressures to teach to the test rather than teach real science.

S Piper
davis, ca


I see the "slow learner" as the biggest victim in this day of high stakes testing. These are our students whose intelligence ranges below that of the average student but not within the mentally retarded range. They will not be served by special education because there is not the necessary descrepancy between ability and expected level of achievement that would qualify them for services. Therefore, they are expected to perform at the same standard as the regular student. As the bar is raised increasingly higher, these students are made to feel like failures as they struggle to reach a standard that is forever out of their reach. A few highly motivated ones will somehow pass these tests. Many, however, will stare failure in the face and wait for the day that they will be able to drop out of school. So how are we making sure that these students are not "left behind?" It seems to me that there is a wholesale denial that slow learners even exist. Teachers are encouraged to simply put blinders on and keep pushing these students no matter what, knowing they will be held accountable when these young people to do not pass the tests. I see many good teachers grieving for these kids and feeling the despair of not being able to reach the child at his or her own level. Desparate parents keep hoping that their child will qualify for special education services at some point. However, these kids are doomed by their limited potential to regular instruction.

No child left behind? Get real. Many are and will continue to be until this state and nation recognizes the plight of these students with limited potential and stops discriminating against them.

san antonio, texas


While your presentation contained a number of excellent resources and insights, I was surprised by its omission of the work many deem to be the most effective and positive use of statistical analysis based on educational testing data. Using data that may be consistently compared over a number of years the charitable organization Just for the Kids uncovers many excellent schools and uses these discoveries to investigate what makes those schools stand out. These discoveries are distilled into best practices that are transferred to lesser performing schools resulting in measurable improvements in performance. Just for the Kids is a major participant in the Education Summit and the subject of several feature articles in Education Week and numerous news stories. The organization is now part of a joint venture bringing Just for the Kids, the University of Texas, and the Education Commission of the States together to form the National Center for Educational Accountability that is implementing the model for a number of states. The National Centers web site is <http://www.measuretolearn.org>. Just for the Kids presents its very thorough statistical analysis and best practices information together with in depth discussions of educational issues at <http://www.just4kids.org>. Please review these sites to encounter the melding of statistical analysis with best practices to the benefit of all our schools.

Jim Bryce
austin, texas


As a teacher in a state which has been touted by GW Bush as an "example" to the nation, I have two words for the parents, teachers and students out there: WATCH OUT. Bush's education plan and its testing component can do nothing to *improve* our schools-- they can only further erode academics and excellence and will lead to a false notion of what "success in school" means.

These tests measure one thing and one thing only: the students' ability to take tests. Multiple choice formats-- and, let's face it, budget constraints and time considerations preclude the extensive use of open ended testing-- measure only one type of intelligence and do that in an extremely limited way.

I have a state curriculum that outlines what I am to teach my eighth graders. The curriculum includes things like "the student will narrate a personal account" and "the student will use conventional English in an oral report." These cannot be tested on a multiple choice test, nor can hundreds of others skills like the ability to persuade others, the ability to write a coherent argument, the ability to lead a group, the ability to present information clearly, the ability to communicate information to others. And yet these are the skills that children must learn in order to have as many choices as possible open to them as they shape their lives.

I am disgusted by what excessive testing has done to North Carolina's schools. We now lose about ten days per school year to direct testing. Add to that the six weeks tests we are supposed to give to familiarize students with the tests' format and to "benchmark" their progress. Add to that pep rallies before tests. Add to that two weeks' instruction prior to the test being lost to test prep. At my school we have shortened all the classes during the day to add a 40 minute "test prep" period-- EVERY DAY.

Additionally, the emphasis on a particular way of demonstrating knowledge-- multiple choice formats-- has altered assessment. Teachers are no longer assigning essay tests or short answer tests. They shy away from long-term projects that take research or study. We are urged to make everything MC format.

Finally, here in NC these tests are being used to make high-stakes decisions about individual students-- but the tests themselves have NEVER been validated for this use. We know nothing about how reliable the tests are for individual students nor whether these tests are predictors for future success. All we do know is that the tests take time away from project-based learning, from discussion of ideas, from the reading of novels and plays, from the creation of real-world applications.

Teaching is an art-- but Bush is attempting to turn it into an assembly line job. Children are not widgets and teachers are not robots. Education cannot be run using a business model. Schools should be organic, creative, flexible places where everyone works to the best of his or her ability. They should NOT be multiple choice test training grounds.

Teresa G.
montgomery county, nc


I see a mass exodus out of the public school system by anyone that can afford an alternative. Private and parochial schools do not focus on testing, but on college placement of their graduates, which is after all the highest goal for our kids. Colleges do not accept students based on test scores alone, but on tests, examples of writing and projects, public service and more. And for students who are not "college-bound", trade schools and the workplace do not use standardized tests alone in their selection process.

Thanks to testing, creative projects and art are disappearing from my children's curriculums. They bring home lots of what I call passive thinking homework, mostly multiple choice, underlining, circling the correct answer, less and less journaling, writing assignments, research assignments, or any projects that include drawing, painting, or music.

This is not an either or question, but a question of balance. Balance cannot be achieved when the educators are judged based on the performance of their students on standardized tests alone.

los angeles, ca


Dear Frontline, Thanks for the attention to high stakes testing. I did want to point out a recent analysis of testing data from the Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA) and the Education Policy Studies Laboratory (EPSL) at Arizona State University. They looked at testing data from several states that use high stakes testing, including my state of Virginia. Here's a quote from it:

"Analyses of these data reveal that if the intended goal of high-stakes testing policy is to increase student learning, then that policy is not working. While a state's high-stakes test may show increased scores, there is little support in these data that such increases are anything but the result of test preparation and/or the exclusion of students from the testing process," the study reports. See <http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18/>

I have five children in grades 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7. All of them good students, excellent test takers and all of them doing test prep instead of real learning. The focus at my school is test prep. For example, my elementary school spent a week in ebruary "practicing" SOL tests for the tests that, for the third graders, happen in May. My seventh grader has concluded his pre-Algebra coursework and has now begun working exclusively from a test prep work book.

The state government and now the federal government are standing between my kids and their teachers. High stakes testing is an experiment on my children and the effects will be felt in the years to come.

Parents are beginning to create a strong resistance to this politically driven "reform" effort. We invite others to join us. The Virginia parent network is located at www.SOLreform.com.

Mickey VanDerwerker
bedford, va


Your report was enlightening from a national perspective: clearly traditional tests have their ups and downs, benefits and ill-effects. Dialogues about state standard choices can become endless.

Over time, however, it should be possible to evolve testing systems which minimize ill-effects and maximize benefit. Standards discussions will evolve toward a national model, hopefully with room for local districts to enrich with their own material.

Your website refers to Education Week's Quality Counts and also AFT's evaluation of standards for further information. AFT's evaluations have historically been based on only two criteria: are standards clear and specific? Education Week's attempt at ranking the states only refers to AFT's evaluation, and simply looks at whether states do certain things, or not.

Neither AFT or Education Week attempt to examine the quality of anything, or the practical effects of policy. Such examination is critical if the standards and accountability movement is to be successful.

The movement gives state boards of education power over the locals and all decisions made. If states make poor choices, and fail to evaluate programs as reform policy, children are placed at risk.

In my state, Maryland, we have had assessment and accountability in place for quite some time now. Specific standards came along afterward. This movement has been supported by the business community in our state, and the well-entrenched political machine.

Our assessment is different. It aspires to be "authentic", like the performance assessment program in Kentucky, which was considered to be invalid, and replaced by CTBS (except for the writing portion). The Maryland State Performance and Assessment Program (MSPAP) is statisticallly invalid for informing year-to-year instructional changes in schools, yet it has been used in this manner for many years. Individual results are also invalid, yet school personnel examine them closely every year for any clues about how children are doing.

Maryland is revising its program now, but it is sobering to think that a state agency with so much power to keep a seriously flawed program now has the power to make choices about how to reform that program.

By the way, Quality Counts has rated Maryland #1 for standards and accountability for two years running: a hollow and misleading distinction. Their rating further entrenches our state education department's absolute power over local districts in Maryland.

What lessons can be learned from this? All assessment and accountability systems should be evaluated for their practical effects in the classroom. All such systems need to be open for continued revision and improvement. Parents need to empower themselves by aquiring knowledge about education practice and assessment policy. Finally, parents need to partner as policy is developed and reviewed.

Jennifer Robinson
monkton, maryland

FRONTLINE's editors respond:
See the "In Your State" section of this website for the Education Week and AFT information referred to above.


Dear Frontline,

I think the real issue is not testing but rather it should be "What constitutional right does the Federal government have in mandating testing?" The Federal Government has no business in education and it has hurt education more than help it. It is the responsiblity of each state to decide if they want to test. In our state, our constitution states that it is the responsiblity of each community to provide education, not the state.

As I see it, each community should decide and they should not be strong armed by the feds or the state department of education.

Your piece showed exactly what is happening to education when the feds step in. All these special interest group want to be a part of the action and they want to push their agenda on all of the country. Goals 2000 is unconstitutional and should be done away with and the Federal department of education should also be done away with. Return the power to educate to the local level and only then will we have quality education.

Dick Michaud
madawaska, maine


I have just finished watching your report about standardized testing in public schools. I was very disappointed. I want reports that are not telling educators and the public what we already know: schools are failing. I want reports on schools that are succeeding and HOW they are doing it.

I have worked in several different school districts in Virginia and California. Most of the teachers I have come into contact with are extremely hard-working and dedicated. It infuriates me every time I hear about accountability. I dont know any teachers that shy away from accountability or for that matter from standardized testing. We realize there needs to be a benchmark and that benchmark needs to be met. The questions that arise are: What do we do for the kids that dont pass/meet the benchmark? Are they thrown to the wayside? What do we do about the students who drop out for fear of not passing the test? What interventions are in place in successful schools that could be implemented in other failing schools?

My fear as an educator is that schools are the social clearing houses. There is NO MENTION anytime, anywhere of accountability except in schools. That accountability rests on the administrator and the teachers. As I mentioned previously, I have never met a teacher that is not hard-working. Where is the family accountability? At the beginning of a school year, I take the students where they are as they come in the door. I fight for any and all resources available to help that child succeed. This could be in spite of or because of the lack of conferencing, lack of completed independent work (homework), lack of the required minimum of 20 minutes reading per night, lack of familial responsibility. There are at times reasonable and acceptable excuses for why these things are not accomplished. I am afforded the luxury of an excuse at any time.

I would love to see a report that focuses on what we will do for the students who are in danger of failing these high stakes tests and how they got in that situation to begin with. This report would be useful to the public to see steps that educators are taking to help all children succeed and what successful programs they can support in their local schools.

I am an advocate for children and I am an educator. I am not against standardized testing but I would love to educate and not just proctor exams.

kerry ames
manassas, virginia


Teachers whining about being required to prove they are performing? Please........... The excuse, it's not my fault, but the students I receive. OH POSH!!!

Teaching is a job. Performance evalutions should be required as in every other profession. How should the teacher be rated? Can their students read, write and calcuate.

Liz King
elko, nevada


The day before viewing Testing Our Schools, I sat in with a class of graduating ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers as we discussed job options. The director of the ESL school responded to one student who asked about teaching in the public schools. Her discouraging response: Do you know how long newly credentialed teachers are lasting in the Seattle Public Schools right now? One to two years. Why? Because of the enormous task of preparing students for testing, the meetings required for planning the tests, the time carrying out the tests, and the stress of being held accountable by test results for a year of teaching in the classroom. And for a salary in the low 20's! For some time I have been considering moving over to teaching in the middle schools: UN-UHH, no thanks!! I know I can bring a classroom alive, get students to learn and produce, but one thing I cannot do, and that is to reduce the experience of Life to multiple-choice, standardized answers. We remove the mystery and the creativity from the learning process. We teach students to take tests, not to face challenges with minds that can solve problems. Good Luck, President Bush, but I think in this arena you & your advisors are the product of too much standardized testing.

Thanks for listening, Frontline, and for raising the concern needed about this testing fiasco. It's too bad in my case--I think I would have been a caring, responsible, competent school teacher that agrees with learning assessment as a component of student evaluation. But, as your esteemed critic in the program stated, here is a situation of setting up the teachers and the students for failure. I am sure I would not last long in such a negative environment.

An Adult ESL Instructor, Seattle, WA

seattle, wa


I do believe that there should be tougher accountability in our public school systems, but I don't believe that standarized tests are the way to achieve this goal. As another statistic of a 5th year public high school teacher leaving the profession, I have made this decision with the knowledge that I have held my students to tougher standards only to have the "powers that be" decide that requirements of passing my course for graduation could be "waived" if parents complained enough. This is a disgusting trend in public education. Parents ultimately no longer care about the quality of their child's education, as long as their child recieves "honors" credit, or that perfect 4.0 GPA in order to get into that prestigious institute of higher learning. Colleges and universities are also at fault when they allow courses to be graded on a curve or by student TA's. This "brain drain" in the public school system is just a reflection of the lack of respect our society has for quality in general. These "standards" that school districts create are flexible as soon as they realize that large portions of the student population are not going to achieve them. We have not heard any significant talk about large amounts of money that needs to be seriously invested into our schools in order for these standards to be met on a consistent basis. It is hard to believe that our politicians really care about the quality of education when my district is looking at a $9.8 million budget cut due to the state budget shortfall. Our nation only cares about public education in theory, but our politicians have not shown that they are willing to fork the bill when it really counts. ~Sincerely, Another Underpaid Public Servant

Jen Fei
seattle, wa


To our CEO's, politicans, film makers, and documentarians, come to school and walk into a classroom where there is real instruction happening. Better yet, leave the cameras at home, forget the staged introductions, ditch the press corps at the gate and forget the sound bytes: show up and see professionals at work.

Most of you have not stepped into a high school classroom since the day you stepped out to commencement exercises. If you did, you would see teachers actually teaching. Granted, you may have to stand because with 38 kids in the room, all the seats are taken. However, in the spring you may have to schedule your visit around testing days. I offer the following:

In California, high school students who are scheduled to graduate in 2004 will take the High School Exit Exam (a so-called "high stakes" exam), Stanford 9, and the Golden State Exams. In addition, they will have the options of taking the Advanced Placement exams offered, the SAT and the ACT. As one of thousands of California teachers, I watch our Spring semesters dissolve each year because of these disruptive, time-consuming "measures" of student achievement. These tests rob our students and teachers of critical days of INSTRUCTIONAL TIME. Instead, we have become highly educated proctors.

Come by and see what is really going on; however, if you show up on a day of testing, sign the security affidavit, and you too can become a proctor. You would free us up to doing some lesson planning.

Veronica Bennett
wilmington, ca


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