The following, published in an American newspaper, warns about the dangers of attaching high stakes to standardized test results and about the growing dependence on these assessments in public education.

The piece was written by Fred Smith, who was a research analyst in testing for the New York Public Schools for many years.

This sounds like it was written this year, but it wasn’t. Read it and at the end you’ll see when and where it was published.

Here’s the piece:

New York City needs a testing ombudsman.

The reasons for this need grow out of larger concerns: the educational purposes of testing, the proper use and interpretation of results, and a rationalization of testing in general.

The yearly reading and mathematics tests are used primarily to rank all district schools and to determine allocation of funds. They are now also the basis for retaining children in grade. This power of one test score in determining promotion clinches the case for a guardian.

Starting last spring, students who obtained reading scores more than a year below grade level in grade 4 were held back. In grade 7, students who achieved reading scores equivalent to 1.5 years below the norm were held back. Though this procedure is mandatory only in those grades, it is recommended for the other grades up to 9. In all, 24,000 students were slated for retention. This policy was well received by the press with a glowing sense that the system had returned to tough standards, long overdue.

But closer observers were troubled. Although parents, principals and school district representatives voiced objections at public meetings and advisory councils prior to policy issuance, the program.went forward. Their objections remain. And there is still no one to turn to.

Is it fair to hold back a student-without acknowledging the margin of error built into every score? What is the message to teachers and principals who feel that their professional judgment should enter into these school-life decisions? Aren’t too many class hours given, not to learning new information, but to preparing for tests?

Other matters have not been resolved. Why not report results in more understandable terms, such as percentiles, rather than grade equivalents? Should the reading promotion policy be extended to math? If it is, will there be enough trained teachers to.give students remedial instruction? What provision is made for the sizable student body.facing repeated retention in grade? That such questions have not been answered satisfactorily poses another: When it comes to testing, who protects the people?

Structurally, too, there is a growing need for a mechanism of test oversight. The work of several units at Department of Education headquarters and the State Education Department’s own evaluation programs revolve around large-scale testing of various student populations. Yet no one has direct, overall responsibility for handling complaints or appeals.

The harshest critics believe that these predicaments arise from political pressures on education -- as, for, example; Mayor Edward Koch’s pledge that reading scores would go up. Some feel that that children’s interests have been sacrificed to press-release ballyhoo

and see administrators’ motivation to put the best face on everything as a reflection of pressure from the top. Analyses out of 110 Livingston Street suspect. Truth in testing becomes a self-contradiction. An ombudsman could counter these views and redeem concerned turn to anger.

There is ‘precedent in state and city government, federal agencies and corporations for an ombudsman. The position must co-exist with the school but be independent of it. The ombudsman and his staff should be measurement experts who can balance technical and practical concerns and communicate with officials and laymen. They would need complete access to test data, and their scope should be limited to transmitting official explanations. They might be more of an advocate than a passive receiver of grievances and would fight; for instance, against a rigid application of using tests as the sole basis for promotion or for testing on a sampling instead of an overall basis.

Testing is here to stay. An active leader would win respect for the Board of Education’s testing effort by making it more responsive to the public.

When was this written?

It was published in New York Newsday in May 1982 — 30 years ago.

Today, reliance on standardized testing is even greater, and there are higher stakes placed on the results than ever. Students and schools are assessed by them, as well as teachers and principals and even school districts.

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same


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