Tests don't teach
By Ernest Dumas
January 10, 2003

Here is some bad news that you just knew was coming. It turns out that the high-stakes tests that have become the rage whenever politicians determine that they have to do something dramatic about education are causing kids to learn less, not more.

It's true. A comprehensive national study shows that when schools are forced to give these pass-or-else state tests they do make big gains on the tests from one year to the next, but more often than not they show declining scores on the broader national tests of knowledge and skills. The big state tests become the curriculum.

More than half the states, including Arkansas, devised their own standardized tests to measure their students' progress during the 1990s and instituted rewards or harsh punishment for schools based on the results.

"Accountability" became the catchword of school reform. If schools and teachers were made to pay dearly for low scores on standardized tests, teachers would teach harder, kids would learn more and, regardless, the public would be satisfied that the politicians had got tough with the schools. Congress crawled on the bandwagon in 2001 by passing President Bush's plan to punish schools that did not show a 10 percent improvement in test scores from one year to the next. The schools would have to pay for their kids to attend another school.

To assure success, states found that it was better to devise their own tests rather than use nationally normed tests, where you were measured every year against a common standard and compared with other states. If you had your own test you could dictate what success was, and it would be easier to declare victory.

No one ought to have been surprised that in nearly every state, Arkansas included, schools began to show healthy to spectacular gains in scores.

Governor Huckabee celebrated the fabulous leap in test scores in Arkansas last fall by claiming that they showed that his education reform "is truly working." He called the test scores "progress beyond our wildest dreams."

There were grounds to be suspicious: After they were instituted in 1997, the early test results were not going too well. The $3.2 million contract for the test was shuffled to a friendly new company, and the fantastic final results for 2002 were delayed for months after the preliminary figures showed dramatic declines, not dramatic gains.

Now comes a study by researchers at Arizona State University showing that when states institute make-or-break benchmark tests schools tend to spend so much time teaching the tests that broader learning suffers. The researchers measured how the same kids who make big gains on state exams did on the traditional national tests.

After starting the tests, twice as many states slipped against the national average on the college-entrance exams, the ACT and SAT, as gained on them. The same was true on scores of elementary students on the math exam of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Fifty-seven percent of the states that started the high-stakes tests declined afterward on Advanced Placement tests. Elementary reading scores were a wash: half the states did better than before and half worse. Only with middle-school math was there improvement in a majority of states. Dropout rates tended to rise in states that have had high-stakes tests for a number of years.

Arkansas got in the game late but the limited results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 1998 are not encouraging. It's true that Arkansas scores on the ACT are down since 1998 even though the number of students taking the tests has declined, but the high-stakes tests should not have affected Arkansas graduates yet.

"Teachers are focusing so intently on the high-stakes tests that they are neglecting other things that are ultimately more important," said Audrey Amrein, the study's lead author, a former advocate of high-stakes tests. It was intuitive all along. With their jobs, their pay and the very survival of their schools at stakes, teachers will teach the test. A principal who does not see to that will not be a principal long.

The overwhelming anecdotal evidence is that this is exactly what is happening in Arkansas. Superb stories by Cynthia Howell and others in the Democrat-Gazette tell of the extraordinary efforts by teachers and principals to drill youngsters on the state benchmark exams for days, weeks and months before the test. A teacher in Independence County told Howell of transferring to a grade that didn't have the tests because they consumed all her time and sapped her spirit. Students are promised all sorts of rewards, including two days off in deer-hunting season, for doing well on the tests.

It's a good substitute for real education. Teachers may feel lousy about cashing their paychecks, but the politicians who voted for or signed off on such foolishness draw their per diem and salary and sleep well.  ...

    Posted on this website by permission of  the author,  Ernest Dumas

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