While angry debates about the use of standardized tests are raging around the country, the Montgomery County Board of Education is embarking on a controversial testing scheme of its own. The school board intends to mandate countywide final exams that critics say have all the disadvantages -- and none of the virtues -- of standardized tests.
Parents, teachers and students have vociferously opposed these new uniform exams at public hearings. Three of the seven voting school board members are against the exams, and even the board members who favor them have no clear consensus as to the tests' purpose. The school board marjority seems determined to put the test plan into effect; a final vote on a new "senior high policy" is scheduled for Jan. 8.
Opponents of the testing plan say that, while they like individual-school finals, they find the proposed countywide uniform exams in all academic subjects for grades 9 to 12 to be educationally unsound and wasteful of time and money. The Montgomery County proposal calls for end-of-semester tests in 110 courses and would begin with development of exams in English and math, which would be offered on a three-year trial basis. The minimum initial cost for exams in only those two subjects is estimated at $307,000 -- to come out of next year's tight operating budget. The executive committee of the Montgomery County Council of PTA has delivered a letter to the school board asking it to drop the uniform test requirement. "The public needs to be aware that the school board is planning to spend this kind of money at the same time it is closing small elementary schools to save approximately $100,000 per school," points out Joyce Constantine, president of the county PTA council, which represents some 40,000 members.
The $307,000 price tag, outrageous to some taxpayers, nevertheless does not provide money for the usual "validation" process (pretesting for clarity, fairness and accuracy of questions). Nor, say critics, does it allocate sufficient funds for the proper training of school personnel in mass test construction and administration, procedures that test authorities consider essential. The exams would be "criterion-referenced" -- that is, questions on specific criteria or "key concepts" would be developed by a group of teachers selected to work next summer on the project. The first tests would be administered to students the following January -- only one year from now.
"Some of the Worst criterion-referenced tests ever created have been produced by well-meaning local school people who were raw amateurs at test development," says James Popham, a professor at the University of California, in an article in the journal Educational Leadership.
The proposal in Montgomery County is for students to take these mutilple-choice uniform exams during the period when the exams are being "debugged." Exams and students will be evaluated at the same time, and the exam scores may be used to compute student's final course grades, which go on permanent records seen by potential employers and college admissions directors.
Parents and students ask: why should unvalidated tests taken during the trial period be used in determining grades? Here is the argument: the quality of tests can't be evaluated unless the students take them seriously and do their best. The students won't take them seriously, it is claimed, unless their grades depend on them. Therefore, Montgomery County high school students -- and there are more than 30,000 of them in grades 9 to 12 -- will be guinea pigs for the board's experiment.
In contrast, the Scholastic Aptitude Tests and the Maryland state basic competency tests given to Montgomery County students are both tests that were carefully developed, validated and piloted over a period of years by tests experts. The Educational Testing Service in Princeton takes 18 months to develop SAT verbal tests, and Maryland spent three years preparing its reading competency tests. Teacher-designed tests at individual schools have, of course, a sort of automatic validation that occurs in the classroom when Teachers correct problems as soon as they recognize them.
Beyond the cost in money and time and the unfairness of using unevaluated exams for grading, critics see further problems in inequity. A test advantage would accrue to students in accelerated classes, in honors courses that customarily get "master teachers" and in classes taught by the same teachers who helped develop the exam questions. Students would be at a disadvantage if their classes were frequently taught by substitutes or inexperienced teachers, if their classes operated at a slow pace, and if their teachers could not manage to cover all the subject matter addressed in test questions.
Although students can learn from their mistakes made on teacher-designed local tests, they will not have this advantage with the uniform exams since they won't have access to them after they take them. SATs have "norms" based on a national population so that local schools can compare achievement with schools all over the country; Montgomery County exams will offer only the chance to compare local schools with each other.
The school board claims it won't penalize teachers whose classes do poorly, but it is clear that teachers will shine in high schools with affluent populations where dozens of National. Merit semi-finalists are regularly produced. Teachers will have problems in high schools where hundreds of disadvantage students are reading at elementary school level. w
Of the four members of the board of education who are pushing the uniform final exams, three have not yet had a child of their own finish high school. Thus, they do not seem to be fully aware of how their proposal may affect a student's permanent records, job prospects, college admission -- and morale. But the time those board members find out, they may have hurt their own children, and we think they will have hurt ours.