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3rd October
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, October 3, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

There are few subjects in the field of education that provoke more passionate debate than the role of testing. By nature we’re suspicious of tests. After all, even the smartest of us have occasionally messed up on an important exam. 

Winston Churchill once observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” Similarly, the use of objective testing devices is the worst form of student assessment — except for all the other devices. 
    There are folks who don’t like tests because they are afraid their own chil
dren won’t score well. How can you face your next-door neighbor, when her precocious Chauncey scored a level 4 in the fourth-grade reading test, and your own little moron only managed a level 3? Not surprisingly, antitesting fervor is often centered in the suburbs, although the test scores there are often the highest. 

    Then there are those who oppose tests because the outcomes compromise other agendas or political beliefs. These are the folks who tell us that tests are culturally biased. The new policy that students must pass five Regents exams in key subject areas in order to graduate particularly enrages this crowd. 

    “Progressive” educators oppose tests because they are cruel devices to torture children. I suspect that the real motivation is that testing all too often exposes the bankruptcy of their educational ideology. This is covered over with rhetoric such as “tests don’t measure the whole child.” This group prefers subjective assessments such as “portfolios” to evaluate students. The problem with subjective assessments is that, well, they are subjective. 

    New York State used to have a three-tiered system to award high school diplomas. There was an academic diploma granted students who completed a certain number of approved subjects and a vocational diploma that attested to completion of some job-related course of study. 

    Finally there was a general diploma, acknowledged as little more than a certificate of attendance. But sometimes just being there is enough, particularly when so many students drop out. In the great push of “progressive” educators to bring all children to the same level, the vocational and general diplomas have been abandoned. All students are now expected to receive an academic diploma. But the children aren’t passing the tests.The solution of some is to lower the passing grade, for others it is to simply abandon the tests, and presumably give everyone the equivalent of a general diploma. 

    Testing may be the one place where society has drawn a line in the sand and has rejected the progressives’ position. The public as a whole, despite the best efforts of opponents, favors testing. They recognize that it is the only reliable path to accountability — of students, teachers, and schools. 

    This may be the only area where Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and I agree. He has the businessman’s belief in numbers. In fact, much of the discussion around the “reform” of the education establishment centered around trying to create a model that emulates the great public policy success story of our era, the remarkable improvement in public safety. There are two reasons for that success: an underlying ideology, the so-called “broken-window” theory, and realtime analysis of the numbers, the highly regarded “Compstat” system. 

    To his credit, Mr. Klein has established a system of creating “interim assessments,” in other words tests that measure the progress of students throughout the school year. But the chancellor may have allowed the “educators” surrounding him, Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Diana Lam and her Taliban wing of the progressive education movement, to water down the initiative so much as to render it nearly useless. 

    In order for the system to work, enough data needs to be collected so that teachers can be given useful information that will help them guide the instruction of their individual students. Those familiar with the science of testing tell me that the data needs to be “rich and robust” enough to get a “fine-grained” picture of student strengths and weaknesses. 

    In order to accomplish this, a test has to have enough carefully drawn questions to correctly diagnose various components of each child’s performance. Here is where the chancellor’s initiative falls short. These tests will only have 20 questions, a number that many experts feel is too small to provide reliable analytic information. This is akin to taking a physical exam, but only being asked to provide a urine sample. Information will be obtained, but a more complete, accurate exam requires a blood test as well. 

    Robert Tobias, who for many years was the highly regarded director of testing and assessment for the Board of Education, and now on the faculty of New York University, shares these concerns. “A limited number of questions makes it difficult to obtain reliable diagnostic information across a wide range of skills,” he noted. “Twenty questions doesn’t seem to be enough to provide the accurate information teachers should be getting to help their students.” 

    Another problem with these “interim” tests is that the chancellor seems to regard them as a measure of the teacher as much as of the student. Last week, when describing this program at a luncheon meeting at the University Club, Mr. Klein gave the example of finding out which teachers are deficient at teaching long division or fractions. This brought a chuckle to Elizabeth Carson, a parent activist who has teamed up with the city’s top math professors in opposing the “fuzzy math” curriculum that Mr. Klein and Ms. Lam favor. “He doesn’t have to worry about long division or fractions,” observed Ms. Carson, who was sitting at my table. “They’re already gone from the curriculum.” 

    If Mr. Klein is looking to measure teacher performance, he should make sure that the interim assessments are accurate predictors of results on the final city and state tests, and instead evaluate teachers by the average growth in student scores they were able to obtain. This is known as “value-added” testing, and would represent a revolutionary reform in how we view our schools. 

    State reading tests for the fourth and eighth grades are administered in January. Mr. Klein has scheduled two rounds of interim tests before the big event. On the other grades, and for math, tests usually administered in early May, there will be three interim exams. Particularly worthy of examination is the fourth-grade policy. Is it his contention that there is no need for continued assessments between January and June? Improved results in the fifth grade may well hinge on how closely we monitor children’s progress during the spring term in the fourth grade.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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