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State Tests Don't Make the Grade
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The No Child Left Behind Act passed earlier this year requires that all states administer standards-based reading and math tests annually to students in grades 3-8 and at least once to students in grades 10-12. If those tests are to serve their ultimate purpose, which (one assumes) is to increase student performance, steps have to be taken to make sure that state tests effectively measure the skills and knowledge students need to master.


Test: a procedure for critical evaluation; a means of determining the presence, quality, or truth of something; a series of questions, problems, or physical responses designed to determine knowledge, intelligence, or ability. (Dictionary.com)

A few years ago, one of the TV news magazines aired a segment on what was then a fledging movement to assess student performance using standardized testing. Part of the show, as I recall, involved a panel of teachers describing how standardized tests were forcing them to abandon "real teaching" in favor of "teaching to the test." I was appalled at the idea that a group of obviously thoughtful, knowledgeable teachers were being forced to sacrifice their most creative lessons to the bureaucratic gods of multiple choice -- and fearful that the standardized testing movement would drive creativity out of classrooms across the nation.

In the intervening years, however, I've gradually been converted to the belief that standardized testing is, in fact, a necessary good; a vital means of determining whether students are learning what they are supposed to be learning and of determining what they still need to learn.

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In today's StarrPoints, columnist Linda Starr says that standardized testing doesn't have to be at odds with real learning. What do you think? Would you teach to a test that was tied to standards and supported by curriculum? Share your reflections on a StarrPoints message board. Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four "nearly grown" children, has been an education writer for almost a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

Recent surveys indicate that most other teachers also have come to accept -- if not to embrace -- the idea that standardized tests are a legitimate way to assess student performance. In fact, according to Reality Check 2002, one of the most recent surveys, "Broad agreement exists [among students, parents, and teachers] that local schools are moving in the right direction on standards, and that testing has genuine benefits."

In spite of the growing awareness that standardized testing can benefit student performance, however, many teachers still fear that "teaching to the test" is detrimental to student learning. Education Week's "National Survey of Public School Teachers, 2000" reported, for example, that 67 percent of teachers say their teaching has become too focused on state tests and 66 percent say they are teaching tested information to the detriment of other important areas of learning.

How can that be? If testing measures the most important areas of student achievement -- and it should -- then how can teaching to the test fail to ensure that students learn what they most need to learn? Perhaps the fault lies not in the teachers, but in the tests.

According to Education Week's "Quality Counts 2001," 49 states have academic standards in at least some subjects and all 50 states test how well their students are learning. Administering tests and administering effective tests are not the same thing, however.

To be effective, tests must be based on meaningful standards.
"Making Standards Matter," a report from the American Federation of Teachers' (AFT), found that almost a third of state tests are based on weak standards and that only 29 states "have clear and specific standards in the core subject areas of English, mathematics, social studies, and science at three educational levels -- elementary, middle, and high school."

To be effective, tests must be aligned to meaningful standards.
According to Making Standards Matter, 44 percent of current state tests are not aligned to state standards, and only nine states "meet the AFT's criteria for aligned tests in the four core subjects at each educational level."

To be effective, tests must be supported by curriculum.
Fewer than one-third of state tests, says the AFT, are supported by adequate curriculum. "No state has a fully developed model curriculum in the four subject areas. Only nine states have 50 percent or more of the components of a fully developed curriculum in place; 27 states have 25 percent or less of a fully developed curriculum in place."

To be effective, test results must be understood and utilized.
">Building Tests to Support Instruction and Accountability," a report by the Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessment, found that only about one-third of the teachers the group surveyed had access to training in state assessments; only slightly more than half had been trained in how to use test results for diagnostic purposes; and fewer than half had access to units or lesson plans that matched state standards.

No wonder teachers are reluctant to teach to the test. Even in those states where testing is tied to standards, no curriculum is in place to support those standards, and no guidelines are in place for effectively utilizing test results.

The No Child Left Behind Act passed earlier this year requires that all states administer standards-based reading and math tests annually to students in grades 3-8 and at least once to students in grades 10-12. If those tests are to serve their ultimate purpose, which (one assumes) is to increase student performance, steps have to be taken to make sure that state tests effectively measure the skills and knowledge students need to master.

To make tests effective, states need to

  • develop standards that are specific and achievable;
  • prioritize standards to reflect the most important learning outcomes;
  • develop tests that are aligned to the most important standards, with formats and questions that demand that students know more than facts;
  • develop curriculum aligned to the standards reflected on the tests;
  • provide teachers with lessons and activities that support state standards;
  • report test results in ways that are understandable and standard-specific;
  • provide teachers with training in how to administer the tests and in how to interpret and utilize test results.

Only when state tests reflect meaningful standards and meaningful curriculum will "teaching to the test" be a goal teachers aspire to and not a burden teachers -- and students -- must bear to the detriment of real learning.