Spotlighting The Testing Assumption In Education

The schools are embedded in our culture, as are many of the assumptions we hold concerning schooling. We first addressed this issue in our Column dated January 18. Given the impact that our educational establishment has on the lives of so many, it seems appropriate to continue with an examination an additional assumption.

Through the years, we have developed a sophisticated approach toward educational testing. In fact, American elementary and secondary schools administer more tests to each year than do schools in any other country of the world. One argument posited by some, as the rationale for emphasizing such testing is that teacher judgment is not always strategically reliable. We question that argument. True, tests, which are standardized and yield comparable data, have a degree of sophisticated precision. It is disturbing however, that these tests possess an undeserved aura. To some, they are the primary source for judgments concerning the quality of education.

We believe that the function of schooling is not primarily to enable students to do well on tests. But rather, it is to provide a level of instruction that enable students to develop academic skills and conceptual understandings that go well beyond what any test can measure. Schools should develop an appetite for learning and self-motivation for success. They should strive to develop attitudes and patterns that will provide young people with a zest for continuous growth, appreciation for excellence, self-discipline and a work ethic.

There is the assumption that the best way to identify schools that are successful is to examine their test scores. We suggest that raising test scores on narrow measures of educational achievement is no significant educational victory at all. Tests are contrived tasks that are intended to sample behavior that will make it possible to determine what a student knows and can do. Test scores are believed to be proxies for the quality of education that students have received. We suggest however, that test scores do best is to predict results on future test scores and that is pretty much it. Think about it, we encounter such tests in only a few places outside of the context of the school. Thus, what we have done is to have designed a system that employs rare events (tests) to make significant judgments about the quality of education. We suggest that in addition to paper and pencil test results, schools examine the achievements of their graduates in the real world. There are examples of students achieving well on tests but have done less well in their personal and work world. And then too, there are those who have not performed so well on tests but have demonstrated a high degree of success in the world of adulthood.

We believe that far more comprehensive measures of attention need to be used to determine the quality of education. To do so, one must know well the individual learner and his or her background readiness, the culture of the school, and the nature of the environment. It is complex but doable. It is a comprehensive process that calls for, in addition to, pencil and paper instrumentation, thoughtful, sophisticated teacher judgment and professional decision making

Sound strategic planning in schools today includes an examination of the basic assumption with reference to testing. Keeping this factor in mind, the potential is there for real progress in planning for reliable evaluation of learning. With evaluative data in hand, there can be RELIABLE planning primed with RELIABLE inputs. And that is how we see it FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE.