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The San Francisco Chronicle

 

What Every Student Needs to Know

February 11, 2003

By Jay P. Greene

A debate has been raging in education policy over the use of standardized tests for accountability purposes. Several states including California use such high-stakes tests for a variety of purposes, such as requiring that students pass the test in order to receive a diploma, and accountability testing is a main focus of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Opponents of high-stakes testing claim that such tests force educators to “teach to the test” by abandoning real learning for the memorization of a narrow set of skills and test-taking strategies. They worry that such tests do not tell us whether students can read and do math, but whether educators can teach students to game a particular test.

But a new study being released today by the Manhattan Institute’s Education Research Office demonstrates that this objection is unfounded -- many high- stakes tests throughout the nation are reliable indicators of student proficiency.

Though educators complain that they are forced to change their curricula and teaching techniques to focus exclusively on getting their students to pass high-stakes tests, it is important to realize that this “teaching to the test” is only a bad thing if the test does not effectively measure a broad set of knowledge. Teaching to the test can be a positive development if it means that teachers are focusing on teaching the general knowledge that we expect students to acquire while in school, such as learning to read and do math.

Most discussions of high-stakes testing and teaching to the test fail to make this distinction between the negative version, where students are drilled only on narrow skills, and the positive version, where the test guides teachers and schools in focusing on the broader knowledge that we believe students need to learn.

Our study attempts to find which type of teaching to the test is occurring in our nation’s schools. Are students only learning narrow skills to pass a test or does the test force them to acquire broader knowledge?

In our analysis we compared schools’ results on several high-stakes tests throughout the nation with results on other commercially designed and administered tests given in the same school systems. These tests are not used for any accountability purposes, making them “low stakes” tests.

There is no reason for schools to “teach to” these low-stakes tests. If educators have abandoned real learning to teach skills relevant only to high- stakes tests, then each school’s results on high-stakes tests would have little or no relationship to its results on low-stakes tests.

But this was not the case. We found very strong correlations between the results of high-stakes tests and low-stakes tests in nearly every jurisdiction that we studied. Nationally, 77 percent of the variation in high-stakes test results examined could be explained by a school’s performance on a low-stakes test.

These results tell us that attaching consequences to a test has little effect on the reliability of its results. When designed and administered correctly, high-stakes tests are reliable measures of student proficiency, capable of telling us which students possess the skills necessary to graduate from high school.

Our findings suggest that if teachers facing high-stakes tests are focusing exclusively on material found on those tests, as some claim, then by doing so they are teaching skills that are generally useful rather than useful only on a single standardized test.

By forcing teachers to alter their curricula and teaching techniques in order to get their students to pass high-stakes tests, districts and states can force their teachers to better prepare students for life outside the classroom walls.

The evidence suggests that in most cases, high-stakes testing effectively communicates to teachers and schools what general knowledge they need to convey to their students and has provided them with incentives to ensure that students acquire that knowledge.

Original Source: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/02/11/ED59789.DTL

 

 
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