Outside view: Why test?

By GORDON S. JONES, A UPI Outside view commentary  |  June 22, 2002 at 6:15 PM
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SALT LAKE CITY, June 21 (UPI) -- The school year has ended, and as it wound to its close, the cry went abroad in the land: "these achievement tests are stupid!" The complaints were pretty general, from students, teachers, administrators, and from many education professionals.

Why, then, do we have them in virtually every public school in the country? It is because we are desperately searching for a way to distinguish good schools from bad, for telling when our children are being taught by Socrates, and when by Miss Minchin.

A few years ago, the public school parents in America began to notice that their children weren't learning much. Taxes to pay for public schools went up inexorably, and per pupil expenditures nationwide soared into the stratosphere, tripling over a 20-year period. But performance, as measured by performance on national and international tests, plateaued, and even declined.

Naturally, these parents complained to their legislators, and eventually, state legislatures got the message, and enacted requirements that students be tested periodically, sometimes every grade, to see if they were actually learning anything. The content of the tests was often specified legislatively, and schools were promised that if too many students failed them, the schools would answer for it, perhaps be having budgets cut, perhaps by losing students to other public schools, or worst of all, to private schools.

The next development was obvious to anyone that had passed Econ I, though clearly many involved had not. Teachers began "teaching to the test." In some cases, a black market developed, wherein the actual contents of the test were leaked, and students were drilled on the actual questions that would be asked.

Even with this kind of cheating rampant, the results have been less than brilliant. In some districts, the percentage of students failing the tests ran so high that pressure arose to ease their "rigor."

But in virtually every case, the result was the dissatisfaction with the testing process mentioned at the beginning of this article. And that dissatisfaction will grow, because these tests are designed to do something they are manifestly incapable of doing: distinguishing between good and bad schools and teachers.

They cannot distinguish between good teachers and bad because the teaching pool is not strictly assigned to a given student body. Teachers come and go, and they shift from grade to grade. Mrs. Green teaches fifth grade at Bryant this year; next year she will teach fourth, or move to Kennedy. It is the same with students. Today Sally and Sam are at Rosedale. Next year, they will be in Riverwood.

The tests cannot tell a good school from a bad one because no school principal has control over his teaching force. I know from personal experience that a good principal can tell within a few weeks which of his teachers can perform the mysterious task of imparting knowledge or, more importantly, a desire to acquire it. But what good does it do her? Unless the teacher seduces a student, or worse, lets fall a politically incorrect word, there is no way to get rid of her.

Teachers argue, and they are right, that they should not be held responsible for failing to teach the offspring of unmotivated parents who won't support the school at any level beyond the payment of taxes. An excellent teacher could very well have students who all failed the end of year tests. That is true, but the tests could do the job over time, under certain circumstances. Suppose two fourth grade teachers, teaching in the same school, to whom students are randomly assigned. If, over a ten-year period, the pupils of Teacher A routinely score 10 points higher on the end of year tests than those of Teacher B, we would have a pretty good demonstration that Teacher A was a better teacher than Teacher B.

But that situation does not prevail, as noted above. And you can bet that the principle is barred from offering Teacher A more money for her performance.

So we desperately need a measuring stick, and these tests aren't it. What is? Is there a way to make the kinds of educational distinctions we need.

Actually, there is. There are observers in place, ready, willing, and able to render their opinion on the faculty of every school in the nation. They are called parents, and every parent reading this knows it. You all know that within a matter of days you knew which of your children had good teachers and which had bad. You compared notes over the back fence, at Sunday School, or at Little League games. If Johnny or Letisha got one of the dregs, you battened down the hatches for a rough year, provided supplementary tutoring, or screamed to the principle until Letisha got shifted -- which simply meant that someone else's child got the shaft.

Case in point: at our local elementary, a new teacher was hired at the beginning of this school year. She taught social studies to all the fifth and sixth graders. Next year, she will get her own classroom, and notes went out a month ago to the parents that she will teach fourth grade.

But, things change, and due to some other shifts in personnel, this teacher will instead be teaching sixth grade. Last week that information went to the parents, and already the howls of rage are being heard. Because, in less than a year, the community knew, of a certainty, that here was a good teacher, one who loved her students, showed them that love, and taught them that as part of her love for them she would teach them something.

Can't we harness that power of discernment, let it work, and do away with the silly end of year achievement tests?

No. We can't. Not in the present framework. If we don't like Food Lion, we can go to Kroger's. But if we don't like Martin Luther King Junior High School, we can't send our kids to Longfellow.

Some argue that maybe a few parents are discerning enough to perform this function, but that many are not. But markets don't require that every consumer have perfect information. As long as a significant, usually quite small, number do, the market will honor that minority and weed out inferior and unacceptable products.

How can we empower parents? There are two ways. One is to return the entire responsibility for educating children to their parents, and get "society" out of it entirely. But if that is too harsh, and if we judge, as I think we have, that there is a societal good in universal education, then let us divide up the public expenditure, giving each student an equal scholarship or voucher redeemable at any educational institution, public or private, and allow -- nay, require -- parents to make the choice.

To take an example, the District of Columbia spends over $10,000 a year to do whatever it does to its school-age children. If we gave the parents of each D.C. pupil a piece of paper worth $10,000 in educational services, does anyone think there wouldn't be a free market in education in a week? A class of 20 students would be worth $200,000 to an enterprising teacher. Education under such a system might not look much like what we have today, but who wants to argue for the status quo?

And the parents of those students would perform all the evaluative functions these end of year tests are supposed to provide, but don't -- because they cannot.

(Gordon S. Jones is a freelance writer living in Utah.)

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