What happens at school stays at school: When students can't bring old tests home

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 6:30 PM

Besides this Monday Metro column, I write my Class Struggle column every Thursday for the Local Living section. It focuses on parents. When I move to California next year, I hope to rename it "The School Parent" and compare the adventures of families here to parent-school encounters elsewhere. Such stories are full of surprises.

For instance, a McLean High School father complained to me recently about teachers not letting his children take their graded exams home so they could get a better sense of their errors. It was an anti-cheating measure that seemed to frustrate learning. Assuming it was an isolated phenomenon, I did a Local Living column about it.

Wrong again. The online version of the column about it got 68 comments, three times as many as I usually get. E-mails poured in. Hiding exams was more common than I realized. A frustrated tutor in California said that "it's not only absurd, but unethical, for a teacher to withhold the results of tests when they are a major component of the grade."

Phyllis Payne, a Fairfax County parent, said one teacher told her that "she uses the same tests every year, so she can't let the children keep the test questions. As a former teacher, I'm mystified by this approach." A top student at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County was ignored when she asked to see a test to determine why she got a D.

Teachers said parents and students missed the point. Anne Cullen, who teaches honors-level journalism at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County, said that "creating a quality test (e.g. one without ambiguous or misleading answers) takes considerable time and effort, and so it is simply not reasonable to expect teachers to design new sets of tests for each unit taught." Teachers usually let students review their results in class, but parents and students say that isn't enough time.

The exchanges on my blog got ugly. Parents accused teachers of being lazy. Teachers said parents were enabling cheaters who would share old tests, maybe for a fee.

Some readers asked me to check with test preparation experts, or psychometricians, before I waded into this swamp. I have talked to them for decades. They patiently explain the long hours and many dollars needed to create tests that are fair to all students and align with learning standards they must assess.

One problem is that many local school districts are going to great lengths to standardize their own tests - making sure, for instance, that all U.S. history classes have the same final - to prepare their students for the standardized state tests used to judge schools under federal and state laws. Having done all that work, they want to reuse at least some questions, so they can't send them home. But do we really need such well-polished exams at every level?

The SAT and ACT college entrance tests, the AP, IB and Cambridge college-level tests, and the state achievement tests are worth the time and expense. They don't need to be returned to students (although in some cases they can be, for a fee). Why can't school districts let teachers write their own tests and let kids go home with them, as happened when their parents were in school?

Districts say they standardize their tests to protect students from unsettling differences between, say, the way Ms. Gonzalez in Room 313 and the way Mr. Wu in Room 315 grade their junior English students. I don't see the need. Students have survived erratic grading for several decades without much harm. It helps prepare them for dating.

Making every test so gold-plated it can't be taken home to learn from mistakes does hurt the learning process, and needlessly frustrates parents. Some college professors used to hand out many possible exam questions and say that only two or three would be used. That produced careful study, and some learning. Isn't that the point of tests?

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