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Score-Boosting Emphasis Shortchanges Education

Education: By putting the emphasis on results, we are cheapening the learning experience for children.

April 25, 1999|W. JAMES POPHAM | W. James Popham, an emeritus professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is a former president of the American Educational Research Assn. He is the author of more than 20 books, many of which are devoted to educational testing

American educators are experiencing enormous pressure these days to improve students' scores on standardized tests. Yet, in attempting to boost test scores, increasing numbers of teachers are preparing their students in ways that are educationally unsound and, in some instances, downright dishonest.

What is especially troubling about such indefensible test preparation is that it stems from two incorrect assumptions. First, that standardized achievement tests can measure educational quality; they can't. Second, teachers provide instructionally appropriate test preparation; they don't. This is another instance where two wrongs definitely don't make a right.

Today's citizens, especially parents and educational policymakers, quite properly demand evidence to indicate that students are being well taught. Unfortunately, the wrong evidence-producing tools are being employed, namely, standardized achievement tests. These tests are intended to measure a student's mastery of knowledge and skills in such subjects as mathematics, reading and science. Nationally, there are five widely used such tests. California's students currently take the Stanford 9 achievement tests. In New York, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills are used. After a state's standardized tests have been administered (usually in the spring) and scored (usually by the summer), local newspapers typically provide district-by-district and school-by-school rankings based on test scores. A newspaper's readers believe that schools with high-scoring students are effective, while schools with low-scoring students aren't. Such beliefs are based on faulty information.

Standardized achievement tests are designed to permit comparisons between a student's performance and the performances of a group of previous test takers known as the test's norm group. To make such comparisons with sufficient precision, there must be a substantial degree of differences in the scores that students earn. If students' scores are too similar, you can't contrast them satisfactorily.

In order to produce such score differences, test developers include many items that are not likely to be influenced by classroom instruction. In truth, such items actually assess children's socioeconomic status and their inherited academic aptitudes. They measure what children bring to school, not what they learn there. Moreover, test makers can only sample course content. As a result, the particular items might not coincide with the content addressed by a specific school. Taken together, these problems typically lead to the mismeasurement of a school's effectiveness.

Yet, because the public relentlessly demands higher test performance, more teachers are succumbing to score-boosting efforts that are antithetical to high quality education. What teachers shouldn't be doing is teaching toward a test's actual items. They should teach toward the body of skills and knowledge represented by a test. Instead, we see increasing numbers of teachers making sure their students learn what's necessary to answer specific items correctly.

In many schools, children are now obliged to spend substantial amounts of time doing "practice tests" before the real tests. In some instances, these exams are mildly massaged clones of a standardized test's actual items, culled from previous years' tests. Again, student scores go up, but mastery of the knowledge and skills does not. Moreover, these test-preparation extravaganzas invariably rob students of instructional time that should be spent dealing with other important content.

At worst, there have been instances where teachers or administrators have been charged with altering students' answer sheets so there are more correct responses and, therefore, it appears the school's staff is more successful.

The pressure to raise test scores places teachers in the middle of an insoluble dilemma. The very parents and policymakers now clamoring for higher scores on standardized achievement tests can be sure of one thing: Scores will go up. But will this reflect bona fide improvements in educational quality? Not likely.

When the ever-increasing corruption of teachers' test-preparation practices finally surfaces as a full-scale scandal, remember it was a misguided reliance on test scores that drove educators to such conduct. Teachers, in this instance, are really victims, not culprits. The ultimate losers of such mismeasurement, however, are our children.

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