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