NOBODY COULD BLAME the public these days if it thought teachers were opposed to standardized tests for students or -- heaven forbid -- for teachers themselves.
The National Education Association, after all, has long been waging war against any tests that compare students or groups of students, whether in elementary schools or in college admissions procedures. Of late it has been aided by a rather naive attack on testing from the Nader consumer conglomerate, and the NEA has consequently stepped up its own antitesting campaign again.
So the public has been hearing about declining test scores and about some teachers not liking tests anyway, and it presumably puts two and two together to come up with the conclusion that teachers are trying to bury the evidence.
Well, it had better be said quickly: The American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than half a million teachers in the largest, most problem-ridden cities and school districts, strongly supports testing.
We -- and, we believe, a majority of all teachers -- do not want to get rid of anything except ignorance. We believe that tests tell us things that are important for students, parents, teachers, colleges, government and the society at large to know. We also believe the public unquestionably has a right to know what we are doing in the schools -- how well or how badly.
Moreover, we would like to see the testing of all new teachers before they are hired, a far from universal practice at present. And when the society decides that it is necessary to retest doctors and lawyers and other professionals after they have been practicing for 15 or 25 years, then we will go along with retesting veteran teachers as well.
Like any other statistics, of course, test scores are open to misinterpretation and misuse, and the tests themselves aren't perfect. But that calls for better tests (and perhaps even more tests) together with a campaign to educate the public on what they mean -- not an end to testing.
It isn't difficult to see why the antitesting movement has surfaced nowadays. There has been a documented decline over the past 15 years in a number of test scores, especially the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) that colleges use as part of the admissions process. What this has reflected, at least in part, is that more students who once would not have gone to college began heading for the campus in droves. That unavoidably lowered average scores on a variety of academic measures, including SATs.
But as a panel headed by Willard Wirtz made clear three years ago, this was not the only explanation for the decline. The panel also blamed lower general standards, an increase in high school elective courses, too much TV watching, more students from broken families, turmoil in the wake of the Vietnam war and Watergate, poor student motivation and other factors.
Unlike the Wirtz report, unfortunately, our society likes handier targets to blame, and teachers are one of its favorites. Educators naturally don't like this kind of heat (who does?), so some have decided to get out of the testing kitchen.
That's why you get the kind of reasoning found in the NEA's formal policy statements -- that standardized tests should be eliminated because they "are used by the media as a basis for invidious public comparisons of student achievement scores" and because they may be "used to evaluate teachers."
The notion that tests should get the ax because they lead to a poor image of schools and teachers represents a new twist on an ancient practice: If you don't like the messenger, kill the news. Even when media reports do distort reality in education or elsewhere -- as is frequently the case -- that need not be detrimental to education.
The Russian launching of Sputnik in the 1950s led to criticism of U.S. math and science education, but it also lead to federal funds and programs to improve both. A public that is kept in the dark about what's happening in education, with no year-to-year basis of comparison, isn't likely to vote financial support to maintain or improve the schools.
On the second score, there will always be simpleminded folks who would reward and punish teachers solely on the basis of student test scores. But that is another reason for educating the public, not for abandoning tests. Tests obviously are not conclusive evidence that a teacher is good or bad, and that some people may draw erroneous conclusions is no reason for refusing to gather the information.
These two arguments are not the only complaints of the antitesting crowd. They also tell us that tests are bad because they make children feel bad about themselves; that they label children as winners or losers, labels that may stick for life; that too much depends on one test; that test questions are often ambiguous and penalize students for errors of the test-makers; that tests don't measure strength of character and personality, which are as important as mere book knowledge, and that standardized tests are "culturally biased" against racial and ethnic minorities and the poor.
What about these arguments?
Kids certainly may feel bad about themselves when they do poorly on any kind of tests. That's good. Let's hope they feel bad enough to work toward improvement. And let's admit the other side of the coin: that kids feel pretty good about themselves when they do well, that tests give positive reinforcement as well. The notion that tests are inherently detrimental -- that they lead to "winner" and "loser" labels -- can be used not just against tests but against grades, report cards and anything else anybody dislikes, including school itself.
The fact is that kids are rating themselves all the time, with or without benefit of standardized tests. They know who the good or bad math students, readers, spellers, singers or fighters are. They are very competitive. So is life. If school is to be a bridge from home to the outside world, it had better teach children how to recognize and work toward improving their standards.
That some tests may be too heavily relied upon is also not much of an argument for doing away with tests. Indeed, it may be an argument for giving additional tests so that no one score carries that much weight.
Nor is there much evidencve that standardized tests are heavily relied upon. They are one factor, along with many others, in measuring student progress. In college admissions, they usually are weighed together with high school grades, personal recommendations, extracurricula activities, family economic circumstances, geographic representation and race, ethnicity and sex for affirmative action purposes. There is little evidence that tests have the decisive role in admissions that antitesting forces ascribe to them.
That's why it doesn't matter that tests don't measure everything. Of course they don't measure character, idealism, creativity, stamina or other important attributes. That is why, for most purposes, they must be used together with the best available means of identifying these traits. (It's worth remembering, though, that you can be dedicated and reliable, even wildly creative, and still fail miserably in life if you can't add and subtract. Personality traits are rarely substitutes for competence.)
As for the charge that tests are biased against minorities and the poor, that's like blaming the thermometer for the fever -- and just about as effective in treating the illness. Is the Bureau of Labor Statistics biased if it tells us that minority youth have much higher unemployment rates than others? Math tests are biased against those who can't answer math questions, and reading tests are biased against those who can't read.
When minority children do not do well on one test or another, what are we to assume? That they really know the math answers but can't comprehend the test? That they really read well but can't respond to an exam that measures that skill? Nonsense.
What should be well known after all these years of studies and experience is that poverty and discrimination have obvious educational consequences, that disadvantaged children need special help to overcome handicaps. This, after all, has been the purpose of most federal aid to education for the past 15 years, and standardized tests have helped establish the need for the billions of dollars that have been spent. Are we to throw out the very tests that give us evidence of the educational effects of poverty?
It is also mystifying why the Naderites, the NEA and some others trot out as arguments against tests the well-worn evidence showing that college entrance exams are positively related to family income. Yes, as a rule the higher the income, the higher the score (although students from all income groups show up at all score levels, and nearly a third of students with family incomes below $6,000 a year rank in the top half of the group taking SATs).
What wheel will be rediscovered next? Is it surprising to learn that poor people don't have the same advantages as rich people? That is what the War on Poverty, affirmative action, compensatory education and every other equal opportunity effort have been addressing for years. That evidence has long been an argument for more and better programs, in education and elsewhere, to overcome economic and other disadvantages -- not to do away with tests.
If all these arguments were not peculiar enough, we are also faced these days with the so-called "truth-in-testing" crusade, aimed principally at the college entrance exams. Although nobody has suggested that there is "dishonesty" in testing, legislation is pending in the Congress and in many states to require disclosure of test questions. Supposedly, the purpose is to let students challenge the test companies, to force removal of any ambiguous questions that they feel might have penalized them. But the likely outcome, if this crusade should ever succeed, would be the decline of the tests themselves.
Making the questions public means the tests could not be used over again, as they are now. Different tests would have to be developed on a regular basis, an expensive proposition. As a result, it also would be impossible to say whether test-takers in 1990 did better or worse than those in 1980; they would not be taking the same tests. We would lose a valuable basis of know how we are doing.
Moreover, while it's true that all tests occasionally contain ambiguous questions, standardized tests probably have fewer than others; this is simply because, over time, the ambiguities are pruned out. With different tests all the time, there would likely be more ambiguities, not fewer. Very little in this crusade makes sense.
Finally, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the testing debate concerns proposal to test teachers. Many school districts require that teachers pass exams before receiving an appointment. Many more do not. There are about 3 million teachers in the country, and some of them fall far short. The same can be said of virtually any other profession.
Why not require entry tests universally for new teachers? We require physicians, attorneys and others to pass exams before they are licensed. It is time we did the same for teachers.
Opponents of teacher testing -- naturally including some teachers and some teacher organizations -- note that a good grade on a math or English or social studies exam won't tell you if a person will make a good teacher, that exams cannot measure the complex set of abilities that go into teaching. True enough. But you can find out if an aspiring English teacher can spell or if a math teacher can do math. If they can't, there's no point looking at other qualities.
Some also have urged the retesting of veteran teachers. These teachers justifiably regard this as one more instance of society picking on them exclusively, and they will fight the notion until other veteran professionals are also retested.
Unlike other professionals, teachers are not self-employed and can be fired at present. During probationary periods, a time of some years' duration, any competent principal should be able to remove an incompetent teacher with little or no difficulty. Even after tenure is granted and a teacher is entitled to a strong due process hearing procedure, a good supervisor only can make his or her case convincingly before an impartial hearing panel and the teacher can be let go.
Tenure laws and teacher unions naturally require that teachers be treated fairly. But there is no interest in defending demonstrable incompetence.
The teacher-testing debate will no doubt go on for some time. But why not begin now to ensure at least minimal qualifications in subject matter and methodology through universal entry tests? It would be a far better thing for public confidence -- and for teacher morale -- to start out right than to complain later, sometimes years later, about a teacher's qualifications.