A few years ago I sat in on a discussion in Chicago where local political and educational leaders crowed over rising scores on a standardized test for public school children. I broke in to ask some questions: Was it not true that whenever a new version of a test was adopted, scores quickly dropped? And wasn't it the case that scores recovered over the next few years as students and teachers became accustomed to the test?
The group conceded that this was indeed the pattern. The city's test had been administered a dozen times by then. It was obvious that students were not learning important skills; they were learning how to take a certain kind of test. The testing tail was wagging the academic dog.
The Chicago story could be replayed across the country. Most states have adopted new academic standards, and many are beginning to ratchet up standardized testing, too. Kentucky introduced new exams eight years ago that are far more demanding than the Chicago ones, but has rescinded them under pressure from parents and teachers because the scores at some schools have remained stubbornly low. Virginia and Massachusetts have had disappointing yearly results with their new testing.
But already a number of teachers are reportedly afraid that they'll be judged by the performance of ill-prepared students, and parents have expressed concern that their children's scores will be considered in applications for gifted programs and selective middle schools.
Should such new tests be embraced as a necessary medicine or are they yet another useless exercise in the perennial struggle to improve public education? It is a mistake to polarize the debate: there are good and poor ways of conducting tests. It makes more sense to ask what we are trying to achieve and then to make decisions accordingly. With any proposed test, I always ask four questions.
The New York test seems to do well on the first two criteria. No one doubts the importance of being able to write analytically about what one has read or to compose a personal essay. It is a significant advance to ask students to write freely, rather than simply to edit or critique a passage.
As for preparedness, however, legitimate questions have been raised about whether New York fourth graders have the background to fill in blank pages under timed conditions and whether teachers know how to prepare children from families that do not stress reading and writing.
"Educators and parents should value the development of knowledge and skills that go beyond a single test."
-- Howard Gardner
This brings us to the fourth and most crucial question. Whenever a new exam is introduced, there is a temptation on the part of teachers to "teach the test." It might now seem far better to teach students how to write a personal essay than to ask them multiple-choice questions about a passage. Yet it is possible even with essay tests to teach students to do well through mimicry rather than through real writing skills.
Here's how this might work in New York. Teachers could instruct students that a personal essay must have three paragraphs, each with a different topic sentence; that the first paragraph must begin with an opinion ("I strongly believe that"); that the second paragraph must include two vivid images, and so on. Undoubtedly, fourth graders could learn to write such an essay.
Soon most states, including New York, will be mandating so-called high-stakes tests in many subjects at several grade levels. We must proceed cautiously before we place students minds and hearts at risk with tests of dubious quality whose meaning can be overinterpreted and whose consequences can be devastating.
Yes we need rigorous academic standards, but we must also give youngsters models when it comes to developing the most crucial skills: love of learning, respect for peers and good citizenship. That is what they need most to pass the test of life.
This Op-Ed commentary was originally printed in The New York Times. It is reprinted here by permission of Howard Gardner.
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