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Education System Faces a Test of Bridge-Building


The spring testing season in California's public schools has finally drawn to a close, much to the relief of students, parents and teachers.

For the second year, the state gave standardized tests, known either as the STAR tests or the SAT9 tests, to every child in the second through 11th grades. The tests covered more topics in math and English this year, though. So the tests took more time.

In the case of second-graders, for example, they took six hours spread out over four or more days. One segment of the test, in math, lasted 65 minutes, which child development experts say is far too long to expect 8-year-olds to concentrate.

All that testing is the topic of intense discussions among educators throughout the state. Part of the frustration is that many students are being tested on material in math and English that has not yet been presented to them, because the state only recently settled on detailed, grade-by-grade standards for what children ought to know.

But another part of the concern is that the tests will get even longer, as questions covering state standards in science and social studies are added. Also, even more tests are on the way, including a high school graduation test. Oddest of all is that the tests given by the public schools are unconnected to the entrance exams given by the state's universities.

So, for example, an 11th-grader takes six hours of standardized tests in math, writing, science, social studies and reading comprehension. But those scores count for nothing when he or she applies to the University of California, the California State University system or even community colleges. As now envisioned, the graduation test the class of 2004 will have to pass to get a diploma won't count for college either.

The result, says Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor, is a "Babel of standards." The earnest reformers trying to raise the quality of high schools and those trying to reduce universities' burden of remedial education are working "in splendid isolation from one another and everyone is saying we have to get our act together," Kirst said.

Kirst is floating an idea for doing just that. He just returned to Stanford after three months studying the bridge the British have built between lower education and higher education. And he thinks we could learn from their example.

There, all students take a test to earn what's known as the "general certificate of secondary education" at the age of 16. The test is scored at seven different levels. Those at the top three levels are considered ready for college. Below that, you're borderline. And at the bottom two levels you don't earn the certificate.

That test requires students to write out many of their answers, a feature that appeals to Kirst. California's public schools, at this point, do not test students on how well they write.

He also likes it that the grading is done by teachers, in consultation with university professors. That's how Advanced Placement tests are graded. The effect is that high school teachers find out what students are expected to know and how well they're expected to know it.

That would solve a big problem in California--students often earn top grades only to discover when they get to college that they are hopelessly unprepared. That's why half of the freshmen in the Cal State system have to take remedial classes. So do a third of the students who take UC's writing placement exam.

Kirst says that he has talked to UC President Richard C. Atkinson and Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed and both are willing to discuss his ideas further.

In fact, Reed already has had discussions with Davis administration officials about aligning the new graduation test that the state is about to develop with the Cal State's placement exams in math and English.

But Kirst is interested in streamlining the system even further. He thinks the state ought to investigate whether it would be possible to use the SAT9 tests in the 11th grade as part of the college admissions process. Those tests would need to be supplemented by a writing test, he says. And the universities would have to be satisfied that the tests produced good information about the skills of applicants.

If those hurdles were crossed, Kirst says, those tests might even become an alternative to the SATs that most college-bound high school students take now. Eventually, he would like employers who hire high school graduates to ask how well they did on their high school graduation test--as it is customary to do in England and elsewhere in Europe.

One effect of such changes would be to limit the number of tests students take. But, more important, students, their teachers and the universities would all be on the same page.

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