The verdict is in, the headlines bleat: “Test scores are down!” The verdict is in, headlines blare: “Students improve in Terra Nova Tests!”
The poorest performances on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study were turned in by American high school students. While fourth-graders ranked near the top among all the nations tested, students tested in the final year of schooling came out much nearer the bottom. Even though 70 percent of students are now enrolling in college soon after leaving high school, the percentage who actually wind up with baccalaureate degrees is about the same as it was in 1950. More than 25 percent of the students who make it to college are being required to take remedial courses in one or more subjects.
The above statements, adapted from Nevada newspapers and Education Week, exemplify the mixed messages being disseminated about government schools. This is, of course, not just a recent phenomenon. As long as there have been government schools, there have been critics and reformers and critics of the reformers. Every politician who seeks office promises to make education a priority, most of them determined to fix the mistakes of the past. We have seen money poured into the schools, money withheld from the schools, progressivism, constructivism, phonics, new math, whole language, back to basics, and Goals 2000.
And now it’s standards, benchmarks, and high-stakes testing. The local headline tells us that 10th-grade test scores are buoyed by academic standards. But Paul E. Barton, director of the Policy Information Center at the Educational Testing Service—the world's largest private educational testing and measurement organization—worries that “testing is often an instrument of public policy to affect schools, to grade schools, to scold schools, and to judge whether other improvements in the education system are having the desired effect. Most tests have not been designed for the accountability purposes for which they are now regularly used.” Barton asks, “Have the results been useful in changing teacher behavior in desired ways?” It is clear that he expects the answer to be “no.”
Yet researcher William A. Firestone and his colleagues at Rutgers University did not get completely negative results in a study they presented to the American Educational Research Association. They found that the New Jersey Elementary School Performance Assessment had encouraged teachers to try out more inquiry-oriented instruction, placing a greater emphasis on problem-solving, having students explain their thought processes, assigning students more writing, and making greater use of hands-on materials. At the same time, the study found that the tests could be encouraging more conventional and drill-oriented instruction in the state’s poor urban districts, where such teaching is already more prevalent. (It must be noted here that many critics think that it is the lack of conventional and drill-oriented instruction that is at the heart of failing urban schools.)
Concern of another kind motivates Gregory J. Cizek, associate professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: cheating by teachers. He fears that the increasing use of tests to assess the performance of not just students but also teachers, principals, schools, and the education system as a whole has engendered a growing trend: that of educators themselves attempting to subvert accountability systems by artificially inflating student test scores. Among the practices Cizek considers inappropriate but widespread, are: changing a student’s answers, encouraging low-performing students to be absent on test day, giving students answers, practicing items from the test itself, answering questions about test content, excluding low-performing students, reading questions for students, rephrasing questions during testing, giving students extra time, providing hints on correct answers, and giving practice on passages highly similar to those in the test.
So, testing is good, testing is bad, testing is vital and testing is dangerous. Mixed messages. There are some private schools and charter schools that are claiming great success with a program called Core Knowledge. This program was developed by E.D. Hirsch, the man who wrote Cultural Literacy, and stresses the return-to-the classics approach, full of great literature and world history, that characterized the book. Of course, to critics like Howard Gardner, Harvard’s multiple-intelligences guru, the program looks more like a trivia contest than a coherent method of teaching children how to analyze and solve problems. They see its popularity as symptomatic of the obsession with factual knowledge and the proliferation of standardized exams to test it. At the other extreme is the home of discovery learning, the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, where the students do exactly what they want to do every day. It is not difficult to imagine what its critics say.
The point of all this is that there is no one answer to the education dilemma. Some approaches work with some children and others work with others and there are children for whom no approach at all will work. As long as we have to live within the one-size-fits-all government school formula, the mixed messages will continue. Obviously, the Core Knowledge and discovery learning programs are only available in schools that are independent of political control.
Mary Novello, Ed.D., is a senior research fellow with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.