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Back to School
From Kindergarten to College

Standardized Testing
With Bill Evers
Hoover Institution Research Fellow
Thursday, Aug. 23, 2001; Noon EDT

Are standards of learning tests the answer to improving our nation's schools? Can these tests truly measure a child's knowledge? Do these tests overburden teachers?

Bill Evers, Hoover Institution research fellow and education policy adviser to President George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, will be online to take questions and comments on standardized testing.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Bill Evers: What is a standardized test? It is a test given under standard conditions. All the students taking the test have the same time, similar test booklets, can either use rulers or protractors or not, etc. You can have multiple choice, grid tests, fill in the bubbles, fill in the blank or essay questions all of which can be standardized tests. You can also have good or bad standardized tests.

There are probably two main purposes of these tests, one is to see how much children have learned -- this can be called the accountability aspect of testing -- and the other is to see where improvement needs to be made -- this can be called the diagnostic aspect of testing because it is similar to what a doctor does when he is trying to diagnose a patient.

Kensington, Md.: What about students who are "bad test-takers" or have learning disabilities that make it difficult for them to succeed on standardized tests? How are standardized tests being adapted for these types of students, if at all?

Bill Evers: Students who are learning disabled have individual plans for how they are to be instructed, and this can include how they handle standardized tests. They might, depending on their condition, have something dictated to them or their responses might be dictated or they may have extra time. One of the reasons that testing specialists advocate using "multiple measures," that is different assessments of student achievement, before making any important decision like promotion is that children have bad days or there are sometimes distractions, such as a loud lawnmower, that run counter to the standardized conditions that we hope for.

Cambridge, Mass.:
How is it possible to attribute Texas gains to the testing system when there were many other reforms enacted during the same period by the state legislature and the state Supreme Court?

Bill Evers: It is difficult to decide whether ending social promotion or reducing class size or the testing system or something else is responsible, but it is possible, by looking at states or localities other than Texas where just one of these things is done, to see what changes occur and then make an estimate of how important testing and accountability has been to improvement in Texas. Principals and teachers themselves say that accountability and testing has encouraged them to focus on getting the students to learn the material in the curriculum.

I would add that in Texas accountability, that is report cards for the schools and information about how well each school is doing, have been the most important, and the standards and the tests have been gradually improving over the years. Accountability has been key in Texas. This effort in Texas goes back some decades, Bill Clements as well as Ross Perot deserves some of the credit. And it continues through all the governors up to the current Gov. Perry. Very important in Texas has been the lobbying and watchdog efforts of the organized business community.

Annapolis, Md.: While I agree with the notion that there needs to be a certain amount of accountability in schools, it is also abundantly clear that the president's education policy is a thinly disguised attempt to undermine public education in favor of private schools. The testing initiative's exclusive purpose is to punish teachers and schools rather than to help students succeed. Furthermore the attempt to quantify everything is undermining liberal arts education and results in memorization rather than deep understanding of subject matter. Who really needs to be held accountable is parents, not teachers. What is your response to my assertions?

Bill Evers: President Bush as Governor of Texas, like his predecessors and perhaps even more than his predecessors, devoted tremendous energy to improving Texas schools and, together with North Carolina, Texas shows the best record of improvement. He is now trying to apply at the national level what he learned in Texas about what works.

Tests can have the twofold effect of holding teachers and principals and district administrators accountable along with students themselves and helping teachers focus on what exactly the student needs to do to improve. You can learn from such a test which topics a student or a set of students did poorly on, and where you as a teacher need to concentrate in the classroom. Let's say you have a classroom and everyone is missing fractions -- that needs to be worked on.

Standardized tests can look carefully and accurately at the components for humanities classes like English and History as well as more quantitative subjects like mathematics and science. For example, good writing requires good self-editing skills. It is possible to create multiple choice questions that bring out those skills. It is possible to create essay questions that are given on a standardized basis, although these are somewhat less reliable and more expensive to correct. Even depth of understanding of mathematics can be measured. For example, one can create a multiple choice question that leaves out a step in a geometry proof and the student has to select which of four options is the right step. A student who does not understand what is going on will not be able to pick the right answer.

The questioner is right to emphasize the importance of parents in successful education reform, but teachers and school officials must not forget that no matter what household these children come from, no matter how dire the circumstances, their job -- their noble calling -- is to make sure these students learn. What if they had no parents at all? What if they were orphans? We would still want them to learn the material.

Laurel, Md.: In general I support standardized testing. It's an inexpensive and objective way to give some imperfect but useful measure of how our kids and schools are doing.

However, I wonder if a mandatory, nationalized testing regimen would lead to a nationalized curriculum. Students in, say, New Jersey correctly receive different social studies training than students in California (in state history). How would you test them? Leave the subject untested? Non-standardize the test by state? Mutely mandate intense state history instruction of each state to each student?

This type of question is relevant to many subjects, not just history.

Bill Evers: President Bush has not called for a nationally uniform testing of students. This differentiates him from President Clinton who saw himself more as a national superintendent of schools. President Bush has emphasized that the federal government pours billions of dollars into educational programs designed to help children from poor families, yet these programs have not boosted student achievement. He has asked that each state test children each year and give individual scores for each pupil so that parents as well as teachers and school officials can see individual year-to-year gains.

He also wants to make sure that the tests created or selected by each state are rigorous, and therefore he wants a sample of students in each state to take a national test.

Reston, Va.: Are wealthy areas opposed to standardized testing because it will create a direct comparison between rich and poor school districts and create more political pressure to redistribute tax dollars to needy students?

Bill Evers: There has been some resistance to standardized testing in well-to-do suburban communities, particularly in Massachusetts, but also to a lesser extent in California, New York and other states. The resistance stems in part from teaching philosophies. Many suburban schools embrace Progressive Education which is inclined to reject testing per se. But also people in wealthy neighborhoods have bought their houses there in part because of the reputation of the schools. Testing results may show that instruction in the local schools serving wealthy neighborhoods is not adding much to what the children already bring to the classroom from their educated households. In fact teachers who teach in poor neighborhoods may be boosting student achievement through classroom instruction to a much greater degree.

There may be pressures to spend more as the results of testing become available. Spending based on testing results makes sense, if it is done wisely.. The key thing to remember is that more money does not necessarily mean better results. Kansas City and Washington, D.C. spend huge amounts per pupil but have comparatively low results. It is more important to spend money wisely than it is to just spend more.

Leesburg, Va.: There is discussion about tying teachers' salaries to performance of their students on standardized exams. Do you think this is appropriate? Why or why not?

Bill Evers: I think that experiments with linking teacher pay or evaluation with student performance are a good idea. It is being tried in several places including Tennessee, Dallas, Oregon and Colorado. We need to do more of this. Another way to do it would be to have principals' pay linked to student performance and have principals decide on bonuses to teachers.

When principals decide to award bonuses without linkage to actual student performance such bonuses can become plums that principals hand out to their favorites.

It is very important to experiment with such linking of pay to performance in a variety of locations before this is expanded to a state level program. There are many ways such a program can go wrong, and these would need to be worked on in a practical way.

Most people in our society have jobs where their pay and their promotion depends on their success on the job. It makes sense to do this with teachers, as long as we proceed with caution.

Bill Evers: Both teachers and students are trying hard to improve, but they don't always get the best signals about how they are doing from our present system. Standardized tests, if done well, can provide those signals. Teachers, who want to get the most out of their students, will know more about student weaknesses. Students will know how they are doing. Parents will know whether they need to monitor Johnny or Suzie's homework more closely. We can both have better incentives in our school system and elevate the standing of learning itself in our culture if we make wise use of standardized tests.


That was our last question today. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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