homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussiontesting our schools
homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussion
collage of testing photos
Join the Discussion

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


I've been watching the testing debate with interest for years and have seen both sides of the problem. Sadly, many people coming out of high school simply do not have the basic skills to think or communicate effectively, making them unable to compete in the business world. Yes, it is critical that the schools be improved and, in some way, demonstrate a continuing improvement.

However, the current rage for programmed testing may prove to have other serious problems attached. We can already see that education has changed drastically so that teachers are "teaching to the test" rather than fostering growth and a lasting interest in learning. I deeply fear that this may well lead to a new generation that has learned how to take tests, but has neither internalized the information in any context other than that of a final test (and therefore will not retain that knowledge), nor learned how to learn for the sake of problem solving, rather than test taking.

Science and engineering problems in the real world don't come on a multiple choice test -- you have to know how to set up the problem and then solve the problem. The purpose of History and Social Studies is to make thinking, knowledgeable citizens able to make intelligent decisions that will shape the future of this country. This requires understanding complex, multi-faceted issues that cannot be distilled into simple true-false or multiple-choice questions.

Creativity, individuality and imagination have been among the greatest strengths of American society in the last centuries. These are the qualities that enabled so much growth in fields as diverse as engineering and the arts.

It seems ironic that countries known for high test scores and educational conformity, such as Japan, are exploring ways to improve their educational system with more creative thinking at a time when our society is taking steps that seem to encourage memorization at the expense of deeper thought.

Anne Sullivan
san diego, ca


As a science teacher in California, I strongly support effective standardized testing in core content areas. They serve multiple purposes, mainly as a benchmark for consistent assessment across the state, and to identify and hold accountable areas where students are simply not able to perform. We have a mandate to prepare student to be a viable part of today's techno-society, regardless of bruised egos and hurt feelings. We should step away from our academic and civil-service roles and think about what happens in the real world to these unprepared students. We need tests that assess our content standards, vertical and cross-curricular accountability to support instruction, and political support to acheive these goals. Classes have been made too easy to accommodate the shortcomings in these areas (to placate, not resolve), and we are just beginning to reap the consequences. The best accountability system for education would be an informed and involved public sector.

Leonard Houser II
tulare, california


PBS failed to clarify the public debate on testing this evening. The program jumped back and forth between standards-based assessments and norm-referenced tests and assumed that the viewer could differentiate between the two. While Popham provided a brief commentary on the failures of norm-referenced tests and the possibilities of standards-based assessments. But this didn't happen until the end of the show. How about a retake?

sheri williams
boulder, co

FRONTLINE's editors respond:
Thank you for your comments. On this website we offer a section on testing and the issues it raises in the classroom (see "Testing. Teaching. Learning?") It includes extended interviews with testing experts James Popham, Audrey Qualls, and George Madaus, among others. We also offer a Parents' Guide, which we hope serves as a primer on standardized testing and an overview of the questions parents should ask about the tests their children are required to take.


I disagree with Mr. Delano. Schools are not being put in a position to fail. They've already put themselves there. I am a sophomore in high school, and while I find tests monotonous, I understand they are important. Why are teachers (and their supporters) so afraid of being held accountable?

Tristan Abbey
san diego, california


I believe more testing will only DOOM public education in the States. What a relief it was to watch your program and find similar viewpoints! Students don't need to be drilled on 'how to pass a particular test' then labelled with a pass/fail number score. They need reasons to learn and motivation to ask themselves, "What am I going to do with my life when I get out of school?" This country disrespects its children by not giving them more opportunities to explore their potentials; and it disrespects its teachers by not trusting them enough to assess and know their own students.

Students are individual human beings with variations of learning, talents, and potentials. They ought to be treated as such.

Teachers are individual human beings with variations of experience and university-level educations. They ought to be treated as such!

Teachers of the USA: Unite against the politicians who know nothing about your jobs and students yet tell you what/how to teach!

A. Wofford
midlothian, tx


Basic assumptions about the purpose of education, though not examined in your otherwise excellent report, are at the heart of the debate about testing. Those favoring more testing seem wed to the factory model of schooling, in which little minds are filled with discrete bits of knowledge determined by someone else-- an approach I thought had been thoroughly debunked half a century ago. Despite the current ascendancy of the business model in every aspect of life, I hope there are still significant numbers of people who understand the difference between training and education. One prepares you for the world of work; the other prepares you for the world. Real education generates a love of learning, an identification of oneself as a learner. This most commonly results from contact with teachers whose own love of learning shines through in the creativity and enthusiasm they bring to the classroom. It is hard to imagine that SOLs and "teaching to the test" will enhance these qualities in those that possess them, or instill them in those that don't. If what we're after is cookie-cutter people to fill cookie-cutter jobs, we'll be fine with classroom technicians teaching standardized content. But if we want lifelong learners and thoughtful citizens, we can't afford to hamstring real educators with required nonsense. How they teach is much more important than what they teach!

james roberts
big rapids, mi


As I watched the program tonight I could only think of two things. One, my personal experience with standardized testing and two, a horror that we will now be teaching students simply how to fill in bubbles and not how to learn or think. Together these thoughts equal a great disdain for the educational system that I will be sending my future children into.

I grew up scared of the standardized test. My low scores convinced my that I was not "book smart" and they held me back from being placed in advanced literature classes. Classes where I ended up doing my friends reports because they were fun, and my friends did not understand the assignment, let alone the book they read. Eventually I began to see that I was smart, but I just didn't test well and to this day I fear each exam I sit down to take. This fear sent me to a Junior College because I was afraid to take the SAT's and ACT's. This fear contributed greatly to the ulcer that was discovered at the age of 14. And, this same fear haunted me three weeks ago as I sat down to take my first round of mid-term exams at a large university. I am currently a junior at the University of South Florida struggling very hard to be the best that I can. I do feel that the importance that was placed on the standardized test from first grade till twelfth grade not only hindered me educationally but also medically.

My second fear rose as the program continued. To hear an algebra teacher state that she feels she has to give a multiple choice exam so that the students are prepared to take the standardized test was absurd. Are we teaching our children that they have to pass a test so that the school will be able to operate next year or are we supposed to teach our children to solve problems, to think independently and to be prepared for the real world that will greet them with an eye-opening shock. As there is no multiple-choice question for how to balance a checkbook, or how to decide which business plan a company should embark on or in analyzing how political and economical factors in one country may affect your company. There are no multiple-choice answers to the questions and tasks that we as adults have to face. So really I have to ask what do standardized tests teach? For me, they taught me nothing. They taught me to fear the "T" word and held me from achieving my highest potential because I did not realize I had potential and they taught me nothing about the world I live in now. My teachers and parents who were wonderful taught me that.

st. petersburg, fl


Dear Frontline,

Hooray! At long last, I have seen the point made that the more thoughtful and creative students can be penalized in standardized testing. The assumption behind such tests is that there is ONE correct answer. In actuality, however, there are often other quite intellectually defensible answers. The "right" answer is simply the EXPECTED answer. The trouble is, with endless commitment to multiple choice tests, we are conditioning our kids to accept the expected without question. Yet progress requires new perspectives; innovation comes only from the unexpected. Where will we get citizens willing to question and experiment when their success depends upon these limited tests?

Pat Zettner
san antonio, tx


What this Fronline program did not address, and what is missing from nearly all of the nationwide dialogue about testing, is the relevance of the cummulative grade point average and individual course grades accumulated by a student going through 12 years of school. Individual course grades represent the sum of the student's experience in the course, and the semester grade should represent the student's performance throughout the semester. In an ideal classroom setting the teacher can apply creative instruction, field trips, special projects, and use various measures of success (not just examinations) - in short, do all the things that teachers say are taken from them by having to focus on state-mandated standardized testing. So, what is wrong with the "old system" in which I grew up? Were so many students passed, or worse, given high marks just to move them on to the next class (thereby preventing the grade from representing the student's true knowledge)? A student in an 11th grade US Government class will achieve a certain grade for that semester based upon his perfromance during the entire semester. Why then is this grade not enough to demonstrate proficiency in the subject? Why is the semester grade in effect disregarded and replaced by his performance on a single test, on a single day under a single set of circumstances? Is the traditional grading system for class performance so flawed that it cannot be defended and offered as a reasonable substitute for standardized tests? A semseter grade should be defensible. Likewise, a semester grade should represent the accomplishment of a student under nurturing and creative experiences that the teacher brings to the classroom. What is it about course grades that has failed our students so badly that the only perceived alternative is standardized tests?

Richard Smith
bixby, ok


I support testing. I realize it is far from perfect, but quite frankly I am weary of the failure of the education establishment to give me as a parent and employer anything else to hang my hat on. Children are graduating without the skills necessary to compete and succeed in life. That is the issue. Until those responsible for government education provide a better solution, I must live with testing, no matter how imperfect it may be.

pueblo west, co


Will more testing and tougher accountability save public education in America or doom it? I suppose it depends on what we want public education in America to become. Maybe we need to think about what a successful learner is. Is a successful learner one who can answer questions or one who *asks* questions? Is a successful learner one who memorizes or one who creates? Is a successful learner one who can chooose the correct response or one who can explain convincingly why one option is more desirable than another? Is a successful learner one who recalls information or one who thinks critically to solve a problem? Is a successful learner one who performs well under pressure on tests or one who loves to learn because of the pleasure is yields?

I'm not suggesting that it has to be one or the other. A successful learner should be able to do all of those. Memorizing and identifying correct answers to problems is important. If you think memorizing, recalling information, and choosing the correct answer isn't important, think about that the next time you have to see your doctor!

If we want public education to be only about memorizing, choosing correct answers, recalling information, and doing all of that under pressure, then high-stakes accountability testing can easily create that model of public education. But if we want public education to also mold learners into intellectually curious, creative, and critical thinkers and problem-solvers who love learning, then our current system of high-stakes accountability testing has to go.

As our farmers here in Indiana say, "You can't fatten hogs if you spend all your time weighing them."

somewhere in, indiana


We need to move away from the "Enron model" of education whereby we record on one ledger our stock value (i.e., our rising test scores) and on another ledger, our debts (i.e., all the children and curriculum we're losing) where in reality, the two are related. One reason we've had rising test scores in Texas which is ranked 47th nationally in the is because a lot of the children we're losing are exactly those who lower scores. The same with the retention of students: Before the TAAS system of testing was in place (1990-91), retention rates for minority students at the ninth-grade level were around 10 percent. After the TAAS test began to be administered, those rates went up to 25 percent. Test scores thus mask the real tragedy of public education in Texas. For more information, see www.texastesting.org

Angela Valenzuela
austin, texas


The tests are secretly carted in and then rushed away by counselors with a watchful eye toward a possible teacher . With lightning fast efficiency, the results are returned within 6 months. Meanwhile, professional development sessions are held to better help the teachers to better prepare the students for the test next year. Curriculums are trimmed down eliminating "fluff" courses such as, perhaps, discrete mathematics, or industrial technology courses to make way for remediation periods. And during all of this, legislators meet and cut the education budget by 58 million dollars which eliminates jobs and increases class sizes. Public Laws are also passed during these sessions which increase school and teacher accountability based on standardized testing. Schools respond by further cutting the "fluff" from courses which eliminate items not tested such as technology and problem solving in order to not lose further funding. Some days I wish I was an ENRON employee.....

Randy Wolfe
mexico, in


As a college student, I have found that students just starting college do not have enough knowledge to begin the next step into higher learning. This usually means that students underacheive their potential in their first year because it nearly takes a year just to catch up with the rat race that is college. Standardized tests, however, do not help.

What we need is the government to have the universities and the K-12 schools agree on what students must know coming into college. They must then require each and every teacher to follow this or lose their jobs.

Lack of proper education rests in the hands of all of us. We must try to make sure that kids don't slip through the cracks (sounds hackneyed, but it happens all of the time) and find themselves lost when they arrive unprepaired for the intellectual world. I, myself, will try to help solve this and many other problems that concern all of us upon my graduation.


Marshall Byrne
lawrence, kansas


I am a sophomore at Wisconsin Lutheran High School and I believe that testing is both good and bad. I'm actually planning on doing a persuassive speech on this topic and I taped your program to use as part of it. I feel that too much testing exhausts a student's mind. I feel that the most important thing is that student's are given problems and are then asked to apply them into real life situations. Of course, there's always the students who don't care and don't try, but they end up failing tests on those topics and still learn nothing. I feel that instead of testing for a grade, the teacher should give tests to see whether or not they are getting through to their students. If this would happen, the teacher could design a test that would better benefit the class as a whole. Seeing the discussions about what should be taught in the area of history on your program; whether or not to add certain civil war names angered me because there is no way that you can fill the void of what is best for an individual student. Rather, most names pertaining to the civil war, for example, should be taught in class, but only names of people who were extremely important, such as Abe Lincoln ect. should be put on tests. More testing and tougher standards will not save public or private education. Teaching teachers to teach to all learning abilities and to a class as a whole will better benefit education.

Eric Nelson
muskego, wi


home · no child left behind · challenge of standards · testing. teaching. learning?
introduction · in your state · parents' guide · producer's chat · interviews
video excerpts · discussion · tapes & transcripts · press
credits · privacy policy · FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs online

some photographs ©2002 getty images all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation