About those test scores
By Ernest Dumas
September 27, 2002
As governor of Texas, George W. Bush showed the country how to reform
public education. If your children score poorly on national tests, write
an exam that they can do well on, teach it until the kids are whizzes on
it, then declare the battle won.
Bush ran for president on the strength of a healthy turnaround in student
achievement based on the Texas tests. No one noticed that on nationally
standardized tests little had changed. On the most widely used nationally
normed test of high school seniors, Texas in 2002 still trails even
Arkansas will be able to claim total victory, too, very soon, maybe even
before Nov. 5, the general election.
Weary of turning up near the cellar of every national test ranking,
Arkansas decided five years ago to write its own benchmark tests to
measure how much kids know of what we think an Arkansas youngster ought to
know at certain grade levels. Devising your own tests carries the bonus of
not permitting invidious comparisons with other states. Even then,
Arkansas students generally were scoring in lousy ranges. But the state
Education Department eventually worked out the kinks and students began to
score really well.
This week, the Education Department proudly announced the results of the
spring 2002 exams. Fourth and sixth graders blew the top out of the tests,
relatively speaking. Particularly astounding were a 22-percent gain from
last year in the number of fourth graders achieving at grade level in
reading and a 19-percent gain in sixth graders who were satisfactory in
math. Eighth graders unaccountably were stuck close to last year's scores.
States that devise their own benchmark tests usually can show sizable
leaps, but increases of 19 and 22 percent in a single year are
extraordinary. Even when great things are happening in the classroom,
improvement in knowledge testing is normally glacial.
Legislators from both parties, who had scheduled a hearing on the tests
for the next day, were cynical. The company that the Huckabee
administration is paying $3.2 million to administer and score the tests
missed the deadline for returning the results by three months. The state
let the deadline pass without assessing penalties because preliminary
results showed students performing much worse, not better, than last year
and the administration
said it wanted to get the right figures. Between the preliminary and final
calculations, the Democrat-Gazette reported, the number of fourth graders
judged to be proficient climbed from 4 to 65 percent. Education Department
director Ray Simon said they checked out the better results and concluded
that everything was done right and that the state could go to the bank
with the new scores.
No one mentioned that the timing couldn't be better. Huckabee re-election
commercials boasting of soaring test scores on his watch were already on
the air. We can make too much of the governor's bragging. Every governor
seizes upon random statistics to show that he or she has turned the
schools around. Bill Clinton was able to find national statistics in every
election that showed his school programs were having results. (Huckabee,
in fact, is taking credit for Clinton's most spectacular achievement. He
has been pointing to a national study that shows Arkansas in the vanguard
in the percentage increase in teacher salaries during the decade of the
'90s. The big increase was in 1991-92, following the tax increase that
Clinton pushed through the legislature in 1991, not in the raises of
Huckabee's four years in that decade.)
We also may be too skeptical of the spectacular gains of fourth and sixth
graders on the Arkansas benchmark exams. It may not be good education, but
high-stakes testing is supposed to produce those kinds of results.
Under the 2001 federal education law, schools that do not show good
progress on grade exams are supposed to be punished, including alerting
each parent in the lagging schools this year of options for transferring
their child to another, higher-performing school if there is one. Arkansas
school administrators hoped to escape that remedy with high scores on the
Arkansas exam but they learned last month that federal law required them
this year to
still use results of the national Stanford Achievement Test, on which most
Arkansas schools tested very badly.
With finances and embarrassment riding on the tests, anecdotal evidence
suggests, administrators have had teachers drilling students on the state
tests with single-minded passion. The idea is not to leave a problem that
will be tested until all the kids are proficient in it. In the old days,
teaching to the test was thought to be unprofessional.
The results are good for educationists and politicians who need robust
figures, but it is doubtful whether constricting knowledge to the
parameters of a few tests raises a wiser, healthier citizenry.