Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2 p.m. ET

Test Nation

Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006; 2:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Valerie Strauss was online Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the first installment of "Test Nation," a year-long series about the role of testing in education.

Read part one of the series: The Rise of the Testing Culture (Post, Oct. 10)

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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Valerie Strauss: Hi. Thanks for joining me today to talk about the world of testing in our schools today. Let's get right to it.

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Washington, D.C.: Your article refers to the "culture of testing that reigns in the United States" and tells us that "Americans embrace tests." This implies that there is something unique about Americans' focus on testing. I'm no expert on international education, but I have heard about the "O-levels" and "A-level" exams in Britain, the "baccalaureat" exam in France, and the huge pressures of Japanese university entrance exams. Are you planning to write about how the U.S. system compares to testing regimes in other countries?

Valerie Strauss: I did not mean to imply that Americans are the most test-crazy people in the world. They aren't. In fact, other societies are even more rigid. For example, tests are favored in countries with formal, rule-bound governmental school systems, such as China and France. In those countries a single test can literally determine where exactly where you will go to school and what careers will be open to you. And though there are numerous efforts to compare the American educational system, and its testing culture, to other countries, the fact is the cultures are all different. I'm not really sure what the comparisons ultimately mean.

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Etlan, Va.: Even supporters of NCLB would probably admit that the difference between various state's standards makes valid comparisons difficult to make. Do you think we are heading towards national standards, meaning national tests and most likely national curriculum? Sounds creepy but it seems like that's the direction we're heading. Good luck on the series.

Valerie Strauss: I think supporters and detractors of NCLB agree that allowing the individual states to set their own definitions of proficiency has resulted in a situation that makes it impossible to compare one state to another. That is certainly one of the reasons behind the current talk of a new national standardized test. It is certainly possible, but it will not be easy. Before such a test could be done, it would seem that national content standards would have to be devised and agreed upon. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for such an agreement.

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Riverdale Park, Md: Hello Ms. Strauss,

In the next parts of your series please include some actual test questions. I'd like to see how tough they are.

If the tests are easy and kids are still failing, we have a big problem -- especially if kids in other countries are passing harder tests at higher rates.

Valerie Strauss: Good idea. Jay Mathews, my colleague on the Schools & Learning Page, and I have run test questions in the past and will most certainly do so with this series.

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College Park, Md.: One problem with all those tests and quizzes is that they tend to test knowledge rather than understanding.

After all, it's much easier to ask -- and mark -- the question What is the capital of Maryland than the question Why is Annapolis the capital of Maryland.

Valerie Strauss: That WOULD be a great question on a test.

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Germantown, Md.: I'm not sure that most Americans recognize that academic testing is a huge business in which an ETS may recognize that it has achieved market saturation with its SAT and GRE exams and intensify promotion of its other major product, the AP program.

How much are the testing organizations making, and can you recommend any studies of the test industry?

Valerie Strauss: The testing industry is a billion-dollar industry. Right now Pearson Educational Measurement is the nation's largest commercial processor of K-12 student assessment tests. You mention ETS. That is the Educational Testing Service, which is often confused with the College Board. They are separate nonprofit organizations. ETS develops and administers tests that are sponsored by the College Board, such as the Advanced Placement program. If someone out there is aware of a detailed look at the ETS, please let us know.

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Severna Park, Md.: Good morning -- thanks for taking on the issue of testing, this is one of my pet peeves. I was curious about a statement in your article that "Americans" are asking for testing -- what group specifically is doing this? Are you hearing this from parents? Most parents I talk to think testing has gone too far and that it is the education system and politicians that are pushing for testing.

I am concerned that our obsession with testing means that the education system expects all students to learn the same thing, in the same way and at the same rate as everyone else. What does this mean to late bloomers, artistic types and others that don't fit the pre-collegiate mold? Are we destined to a future of robot children that are medicated if they don't fit in? Are we stuck with children that sit in their desks for hours at a time, from pre-K through high school without access to the outdoors? Am I the only one worried about this?

Valerie Strauss: Hi. I don't think I wrote that Americans are asking for tests. My point was that ours has become a culture of testing because Americans generally like concrete answers. A number on a test means more to many people than a teacher's comment saying that a child did well. I do think there is growing evidence that a large segment of society is concerned about the effects of the high-stakes testing culture. Polls show it. Hundreds of colleges now no longer require admissions test scores and more are considering it. As for late bloomers, etc., I do hear many teachers quite concerned about the regimented way many kids are required to learn. The notion that every child should read in kindergarten seems to fly in the face of the reality that not every kid is able to do that.

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Washington, D.C.: Ms. Strauss,

Aleta Margolis, Executive Director of Inspired Teaching, suggested I write in for your live chat today and asked me to say hello for her.

We at Inspired Teaching are thrilled to see that there will be an upcoming series tackling the thorny issue of standardized testing. As an organization that works intensively with schools to support teachers and principals as they work to transform school culture, we understand the need for accountability measures, especially in today's climate of data-driven instruction. However, we (like many others) question the wisdom of relying on a single measure to assess school quality. In the case of using standardized tests of reading and math as indicators of school effectiveness, as is required by NCLB, this over-reliance on tests is especially troubling, as the tests are being put to a use for which they were never intended.

Skeptical of the increasing misuse of standardized test data, Inspired Teaching has consciously avoided the use of test scores to demonstrate changes in our partner schools. We do, however, believe in the value of data-driven reflection on school quality. We have consciously worked as an organization to develop alternative forms of assessment that give teachers, principals, and professional development staff useful information that can be used to make instructional decisions and evaluate what works and what doesn't. Measures we use include surveys of teacher working conditions, student evaluations of their classroom learning environment, assessments of how instructional time is allocated in the classroom, and assessments of the quality of teachers' assignments. Currently, we are thinking through how to assess student learning without relying on test scores. What are your thoughts on productive alternatives to standardized testing? Will you be addressing the role of alternatives in your upcoming articles?

Congratulations on an important piece of journalism in the public interest.

Dr. Julie Sweetland, Research Specialist

Center for Inspired Teaching

Valerie Strauss: Jay Mathews and I will, over the next months, certainly address alternatives to standardized testing. I suspect, though, that if we didn't have standardized testing today, we'd invent them all over again. Thanks for writing.

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Washington, D.C.: I have twins and one of them tests just fine (despite her low motivation in school) and the other struggles a bit -- but she is incredibly hard working, focused and diligent. She ends up doing well in school, despite her tests scores, because of these traits. I do worry tremendously, though, that her self-esteem will suffer and she will begin to think of herself as not bright, especially in comparison to her sister, who tests much higher. I actually toss the tests in the trash as soon as they come home to avoid their comparing scores. I am worried that they really could affect the future when one sister sees herself as "not good enough," or worse. Have there been any studies on the effect of these tests on self image?

Valerie Strauss: I'd imagine that consistently doing poorly on any test --standardized or not -- could affect someone's self-image. (My own lousy scores in geometry did nothing good for mine.) Samuel J. Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development in Chicago, has said that research shows that standardized testing of children under third grade can harm self-image and motivation.

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New Orleans: The testing article mentions ratings such as Apgar and developmental milestones and treats them as if they are types of achievement tests. However, these tests are indicators of health. An Apgar score of three or less is means that the newborn is in immediate danger of dying. It is not simply "failing." As for the developmental milestones, they are used as indicators for developmental disorders such as cerebral palsy or autism. They are used as important indicators of disease, not simply rating for rating's sake.

Valerie Strauss: I've had numerous e-mails about this. I wasn't intending to suggest that we give 1-minute-old babies actual achievement tests. Of course the APGAR is a health screening process, and a vital one. I'm sorry if anybody actually thought I meant to equate it with the SAT or was belittling its importance. I remember being quite delighted when my own two daughters got high APGAR scores!

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New York, NY: As a researcher in this area, I'm glad to see so important a paper take on the culture of testing. By way of a comment, I'd like to say that in the past 30 years there are barely a handful of studies done that attempt to analyze the reasoning students employ to answer multiple-choice questions. Those few that have been done indicate that the subject area the test ostensibly measures is only one aspect of this reasoning, and sometimes quite a small aspect. This means that to answer multiple-choice questions on a social studies exam students rely on their factual knowledge of social studies, their literacy skills, their test-wiseness skills and their knowledge about a particular test. This makes the interpretation of a score very difficult. Did the student master the standards or did she learn some tricks about this particular test?

We know so little and rely so heavily on these tests that I am left with the feeling that this is a faith-based policy. Faith in the "science" of testing and in a "meritocracy" where the people who are expected to do well, do well.

Gabriel Reich, Doctoral Student

New York University

Valerie Strauss: Education research is a tricky business, and I do think people hear about this study or that study and assume it has a legitimacy it may not have. One thing that has struck me is how frequently people in the assessment field have expressed similar sentiments.

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New York, N.Y.: Do you know how the population breaks down along race and class lines when it comes to support for standardized testing?

Valerie Strauss: African-Americans and Hispanics generally do worse on standardized tests than other groups of students. One of President Bush's stated objectives of No Child Left Behind was to help close this achievement gap. Even many detractors of NCLB do concede that the law has required schools to look more closely at underachieving minorities. The law requires that test scores be reported according to subgroups, and consequently, many schools have given new attention to students who had been ignored before.

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Windsor: Valerie, your article is an excellent beginning to a very complex subject.

Our children grow up in a a world where their worth is literally "measured" by a number or score on a test.

As heartbreaking as this is, if we do not help them with some practical strategies to master these tests, they are often doomed to years of academic failure, low self-esteem or worse.

One has to wonder, what the alternatives to written testing are. So far, we have not come up with a good way to assess knowledge for the millions of children in our schools; thus it seems that "test-taking" strategies win out in favor of authentic learning.

That said, I know that our children judge themselves by how well they do on these tests, and if we do not provide them with practical ways to learn and recall the information they "learn," they are literally pawns in the test-craze, and come to believe they are not "smart" when they cannot pass our tests.

The result -- millions of children dropping out, filling our juvenile justice systems, and turning to substance abuse just to feel better about themselves, because no one showed them how to succeed in our schools.

Will your future articles discuss whether there are any real and workable alternatives to the written tests and if so, do you believe there are?

Valerie Strauss: Assessment experts say it could be very difficult finding alternative ways considering the millions of students in the educational system. That is not to say that tests can't be made better. The issue to many opponents of NCLB is not so much that there are tests, but what is done with the scores. The stakes in some of these tests -- which can determine a principal's job or a teacher's pay or a student's promotion or graduation -- are what is at issue for many.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Despite the protestations of school administrators, haven't we figured out what just about every teacher states privately: school time is focused more on improving test scores than on what children learn? Isn't it time to re-evaluate the amount of testing and how much we evaluate teachers and schools based on these test scores?

Valerie Strauss: Lots of people agree with you. Others believe standardized testing has made a lot of bad schools better by forcing them to focus more on teaching basics.

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Arlington, Va.: How can educators combat misleading information and false assumptions about competitiveness? We've known for years that those countries that "out-compete" the U.S. in Math and Science only test a subset of their students. And how do we challenge the public to abandon their old-school comfort with rote-learning for deeper, more meaningful understanding, applied learning, and synthesis of new ideas? What good is being No. 1 in memorized facts when we're so far behind other industrialized countries in teen pregnancy, income gaps and poverty, pollution, voter turnout and health care? In fact, education is one of our brightspots in comparing ourselves to other countries, unless you count our No. 1 ranking in military spending, fast-food consumption and ATV and Jet Ski accidents.

Valerie Strauss: The claims and counterclaims of U.S. competitiveness go a long way back. There were many people in the 1980s who feared our public school system was doing such a poor job of turning out graduates that the economy was in danger. I should add that the public education system was not credited with the soaring economy of the 1990s... In any case, it seems that educators are often caught in the middle of politicians and policy-makers on both sides of the competitiveness question. There were no teachers, for example, asked to help draw up the No Child Left Behind law.

What can educators do? What anybody else can do when they don't like something. Speak up. Stay in the profession and fight what they don't like.

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Aiken, S.C.: Hi, have you noticed the apparent clash between NCLB and IDEA? In my school district we have at least two elementary schools that didn't make AYP for the following reason: Neither had enough special needs students to count as a sub-group. The school administrators and the IEP teams agreed that a small percentage of those students would be best served by taking PACT (our state test) off grade-level to coincide with their functioning ability. By doing so, both schools didn't meet the participation requirements for special education students and therefore didn't meet the objectives. In effect, the schools were penalized for doing the right thing and not forcing these kids to take the state test at a level for which they were not prepared. I'd like your opinion on this. Thanks.

Valerie Strauss: I've heard similar stories involving special needs kids. Some schools can miss hitting their annual yearly progress targets because of one or two students. Now, forcing special needs kids to take tests for which they are not able to take makes no sense. Others would argue, however, that forcing a child to take a test for which he/she is not prepared may in some cases make some sense. It can, for example, show the child they need to do more work, or the teacher that a new approach is required.

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New York, N.Y.: The race and class guy again, my question was about what opinion polls reveal about support for testing by race or class group.

Valerie Strauss: Sorry. If anyone knows, please tell us.

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Beaumont, Tex.: As an educator, I'm concerned that students are ultimately learning "how to take tests" rather than "how to learn." But how do you measure learning? It's a highly individualized process that takes time and skill. The question I keep asking myself, is what is education for? Are we striving to prepare all students for college, or how to be good learners in whatever course they follow?

Valerie Strauss: These are all very good questions. The process of how to measure learning has been studied by many very smart people for a long time and the people in that field would be the first to tell you how complicated it is. I do think there are many teachers who will tell you that they feel they are spending too much time preparing kids to take standardized tests. There are also teachers who will tell you that they think the preparation helps the kids learn what they need to learn. Education is essentially the process of helping people of any age become productive members in our society.

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Annapolis, Md.: The testing industry is a fast growing and profitable aspect of the business of education. As with every growing business trend, the stakes are high (in dollars) and the lobby is very strong.

In this particular case, the companies who supply the tests are also often the companies that supply the study and tutoring materials, the workbooks, textbooks, curriculum guides, training sessions, etc, etc, etc...

The criss-cross of interests and involvement have become a spider's web and our children are the unfortunate insects caught in the trap.

The current administration has close ties to many of the stake-holders in this growing industry.

Parents, in general terms, do not seem to look beneath a marketing campaign designed to protect and ensure the growth of this industry. They have, a lot of them, either adopted a trusting attitude and naively believed that the schools and educational policies would always do right by our children, or they buy into the campaign tactics, oblivious of the quality of these products.

News media is selective about printing the kind of information that parents need to fully understand the issues.

But teachers know, first hand of the horrors and so do students.

I would suggest to anyone reading this today to follow your discussion with a basic Internet search of related research and articles on testing that evaluate the validity, the relevance, and the influence on curriculum, teaching and learning of this billion dollar industry of testing.

As always, the best teachers find a way to work around oppressive and harmful policies, but in this case, under NCLB, it is difficult to escape the strong-hold of the business world on our classrooms. With district policies that bind our classroom curriculums to tests in order to meet NCLB requirements, and test/textbook/curriculum companies protecting their profits, even a great teacher has such little opportunity to offer anything outside of the restrictive policy standard.

The damages inflicted by the "tests and measurement" movement are pervasive and unselective. All children, from the youngest through HS seniors, all manners of special needs children, the most academically capable, and the masses of children in between suffer the severe limitations of this destructive policy.

Tests do not and should not replace the higher ideals we once had for what it means and how we once meant to "educate" in our public schools. A government should not control and extinguish the freedoms of a system created to preserve the freedoms of a fragile democracy.

I hope that anyone participating here today will spend less time talking and more time listening to the students and the teachers about the quality of education under the restraints of a testing industry.

Thank you for facilitating this important discussion.

Valerie Strauss: You are welcome.

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Valerie Strauss: Thanks to everyone for participating. Stay tuned to the Schools & Learning Page, please, because Jay Mathews and I will be exploring the testing culture from every possible angle. We will look at the history of tests, how tests are created and scored, what the scores are supposed to mean, the effects of standardized tests on curriculum, and more. If you have any ideas, feel free to e-mail either one of us. Thanks again!

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