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  Standardized Tests: Fair or Unfair?
By Jesse Abrams-Morley
Article provided by iHigh.com

News Story 30753 Image Tina Yalen devoted herself to youngsters for 33 years, teaching her students American history, government and basic economics. But more importantly, she said, she taught her students to think.

Now Yalen fears that the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, mandated for Virginia's public school students by the state's legislature, threaten her way of teaching. "It diminishes the creative and critical thinking focus I used to center my curriculum around and instead puts the focus on factoids," said Yalen, a former eighth grade civics teacher from Reston, Va.

Virginia is not alone in emphasizing standardized tests. More than 20 states now require students to pass a standardized test to graduate high school, and several others will have such a requirement within five years.

High school students like Katy, of Bristol, Ind., believe standardized testing is unfair because "not everyone has the same background."

This can lead to other issues, like test-taking pressure and the fear of not graduating, she said. "The atmosphere is usually tense because some of these kids know they're not going to pass," Katy said. "Not everyone who tries their hardest will get a diploma." Yet Katy admits, "It's kind of an incentive to get people to learn what they should."

Chelsea, 16, agrees. "I think those (tests) are bogus because not everyone is academically strong," she said. "I personally do really badly on tests, so if I had to pass a test to get out of high school, I'd probably fail. They don't actually show what a student has learned because they're on such a small level. People grading it don't know all that person knows."

Yet people want an increase in state testing, said Ronald A. Peiffer, Assistant State Superintendent for the Maryland State Department of Education. "The public told us to do these tests," Peiffer said. "They're tired of graduating kids who don't know how to read and write." Peiffer is not alone in wanting standards.

"We need common expectations, common standards across the board," said David Paris, Professor of Government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. Standards aren't the problem, Yalen said. The problem is that the people mandating the tests don't understand how the typical classroom works. "The policy makers who make these decisions are really out of touch with what's going on in the classroom and what our students need," said Yalen, who is National Board Certified.

Sixty-three percent of voters believe that a student's progress for one school year cannot be accurately measured by one standardized test, according to a bipartisan poll conducted in May by the American Association of School Administrators. "We're treating them as infallible measures and absolute measures, and they simply aren't," said Peter Sacks, author of Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It. "We need to create a new paradigm of merit in America. One based on actual accomplishments on endeavors that actually matter."

More than 80 percent of Virginia teachers believe the use of the SOL tests has caused them to teach and assess students differently, according to a study presented at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting in 1999. Sacks believes this is true in Texas as well. "Nothing happens in a Texas classroom unless it can be formatted into a test question," he said.

But just because a teacher teaches towards the test, doesn't mean the material learned is irrelevant, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, Senior Director of Communications for the Texas Education Agency. "It's not as though people are teaching something completely unrelated to what they should be teaching," Ratcliffe said.

While many teachers have altered their curriculum, not all are opposed to state testing. "I have no problem with students needing to pass a test to graduate," said Dr. Kay Harper, who has 22 years of teaching experience and currently teaches in Oviedo, Fla. "It takes the 'I just want to be loved by my kids and survive this experience alive' teacher and forces him or her to actually teach." But Sacks, who interviewed many teachers for his book, doesn't think Harper's opinion is the norm. "Teachers, by in large, believe standardized tests aren't worth the paper they're printed on," he said.

The recent standardized testing boom has left legislators, administrators, students and teachers alike with a slew of concerns over testing ethics and biases. In June, officials in Montgomery County, Md., accepted the resignation of the principal of Potomac Elementary School, one of Maryland's top-rated elementary schools, amidst allegations that staff members at the school violated testing rules on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). One teacher at the school reviewed students' answer books, while another coached students towards correct answers and gave them extra test time, an investigation by several offices of the Montgomery County Public Schools concluded.

June articles in Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report have publicized other cheating scandals in Ohio, New York and Texas. "I'm amazed it doesn't happen more often," Yalen said. "As ethical as you want to be, you don't want your kids to be unfairly judged. You don't want to take the heat, and you don't want your school to take the heat."

Peiffer believes the cheaters, not the tests, are responsible for the recent problems. "In every profession, you have people who make ethically bad decisions," Peiffer said. "I don't think standards are driving people to do things like this." The rapid progress of the standards movement is partly to blame for the cheating, Paris said. "In the rush to get accountability and standards, we have perhaps created an environment where cheating became an option," he said.

Maryland divides $2.75 million each year among the 100 or so schools that improve the most on the MSPAP. But Peiffer does not think a school would go to desperate measures to get less than $30,000. "I don't think anyone's in a horse race to get that money," he said. Not everyone sees eye-to-eye with Peiffer on the money issue. "It would seem to me that incentives and penalties should be clearly education related and not financial," Paris said.

The question of equity continues to dog states as whites continue to score higher on standardized tests than African-Americans and Hispanics. A little less than 90 percent of white 10th graders passed all three "exit-level" parts of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) in the spring of 2000. By contrast, only 67 percent of African-American students and 70 percent of Hispanic students achieved that feat.

Students generally must pass all the "exit-level" tests or a series of TAAS tests in specific subjects by the end of senior year to graduate on time. "I think what we have here is the making of a civil rights disaster," Sacks said.

The number of minority students who pass the "exit-level" TAAS in 10th grade has increased steadily over the last six years. Twenty-eight percent of African-American 10th graders passed the tests in 1994. "What we're seeing over the years is a closing of the gap," Ratcliffe said. But Ratcliffe could not pinpoint the source of the discrepancies. "I think it's all the things you hear all the time," she said. "We're not unique that way."

To lessen testing gaps, several states have committees in place to ensure that test questions are not biased. In Indiana, one committee reviews questions for the Graduation Qualifying Exam (GQE) to make sure they are not racially, ethnically or gender bias. Then a second committee weeds out questions that are biased along political or religious lines.

Indiana is particularly concerned with making sure different ethnic groups are represented in reading selections, said John Moreland, an educational consultant with the Indiana Department of Education. "We try to pull in items with more African-Americans in it, more Hispanics in it," Moreland said.

But Paris is not sure if states will be able to make tests fair for all students. "We've never been very good at implementing equal opportunity for everyone," he said.

The equity issues extend to questions of how the testing affects economically disadvantaged students. Sixty-eight percent of economically disadvantaged 10th graders passed the "exit-level" TAAS in 2000. This number is up from 32 percent in 1994.

Angered by the low performance in urban schools, legislatures in several states have passed measures allowing the states to take over those schools. Starting in September, "vendors" will run three Baltimore schools on behalf of the state of Maryland, Peiffer said. Maryland does put money aside for schools that score poorly on the MSPAP.

But Sacks said the current system puts poor students and districts at a disadvantage. "These tests have always been used to reward to privileged and punish the underprivileged," he said. "I think it's tragic that we are, as a society, not willing to pay the price to achieve equitable economic outcomes."

How do you feel about standardized tests? Are they helpful or unfair? Email us and we'll post your comments here!

Your comments:

This article really hit at the main issues of standardized testing: the questions of necessity and equality. Hopefully it will inspire people to work toward fairer standardized tests -- or less of them. The author obviously has a great future in journalism.

I liked this article. It was intelligently written and relevant to people our age. The writer did a great job.



Article provided by iHigh.com

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