THE GROWING CLAMOR for "accountability" in education -- coming from every place from the Education Department to state legislatures -- has led naturally to a greater emphasis on standardized tests and test scores. Up to a point, this is good. Students need basics, and test scores can provide some information on what they're learning and which of them is in trouble. But automatic reliance on such scores can cause problems. An example is supplied by the school system of St. Louis, currently locked in a lawsuit with its teachers' union over a two-year-old policy that conditions the careers of teachers -- their promotion and even, in some cases, their firing -- on how well their students perform on annual standardized tests.

The pitfalls of such a policy are obvious. Students in urban schools typically bring with them a roomful of differences and afflictions that a teacher can try to combat but certainly does not control. Students, for their part, can exercise control over the career of a teacher they may dislike, simply by doing badly. In self-defense, teachers are most likely to abandon the full sweep of the curriculum and teach narrowly "to the test," a pattern educators uniformly deplore, saying it leads to sterility and lack of real learning. Worse, there is the powerful incentive -- apparently borne out in a rash of complaints since the policy was put into effect -- for teachers to collude with their students in some form of cheating. And in the longer term, emphasizing high test scores can actually make teachers reluctant to try to retain dropouts, since their records will look better with weak students gone than with them in the classroom making low test scores.

With all these evident drawbacks, though, the St. Louis school board embraced the policy and has clung to and defended it publicly through a (so far) two-year court fight. Why? The forces pushing them, and by extension other districts, are the real grounds for concern, even though no other district has yet gone as far. The superintendent of schools, Jerome Jones, argued on television in September that "an accountability system that looks at product is a critical factor" in upgrading the education students receive. He was echoing much of the rhetoric from Washington, where the Education Department has been urging that education be judged by quantifiable results and that teachers be held accountable for achievement. Imposing "production-based" goals such as test scores is also attractive because, in austere times, it doesn't cost anything. Rather, it is implied, the teachers put under this new pressure will respond by somehow making up through personal effort for all the shortcomings of the school system and the obstacles to achievement that students bring with them.

The real result is likely to be increased stress and greatly decreased morale. Whether or not the St. Louis plan is eventually overturned, it stands to demonstrate that education is not, in fact, a simple "product," that its aims cannot be achieved by assembly-line techniques.