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The New York Times


Making the Best of a Flawed System

August 03, 2009

By Marcus A. Winters

One of the pitfalls of standardized tests, perhaps the most important accountability-focused reform, is their elevation of scores over genuine learning. In high-stakes testing jurisdictions, anxious teachers, in order to avoid earning bad grades themselves, “teach to the test,” as the saying goes. In doing so, fortunately, some teachers adopt classroom techniques that produce real increases in student proficiency, particularly among the lowest-performing students. Tough proctoring rules can deter less well-motivated teachers from raising test scores in more underhanded ways.

The bigger problem with standardized tests is their emphasis on the achievement of only minimal proficiency. In most programs, the proficiency benchmarks that students must pass are levels of literacy and numeracy so low that only the most academically troubled students will find themselves better prepared for the outside world. High-achieving students, by contrast, will have already far exceeded them. While it is imperative that even the least accomplished students have sufficient reading and calculating skills to become self-supporting, these are nonetheless the students with, overall, the fewest opportunities in the working world. Meanwhile, limited resources are relocated away from the most promising students. If the premise of our educational system is that all students must be able to crawl before we help others to run, then such a policy is a worthy one.

Regardless of how high or low we choose to set the proficiency bar, standardized test scores are the most objective and best way of measuring it. Still, they are flawed. On a multiple choice exam, a child can demonstrate whether he can read and grasp the gist of a piece of writing, but he cannot usually demonstrate the depth or thoroughness with which he comprehends it. The gap between proficiency and true comprehension would be especially wide in the case of the brightest students. These would be the ones least well-served by high-stakes testing.

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