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Monday, December 10, 2007

The Fallout from Testing

December 6, 2007

Dear Diane,
There's a streak of naivete about you that is both delightful and infuriating! The notion that we have come to a consensus on what constitutes the well-educated 8-, 12- or 18-year-old, on what body of facts and scientific truth we all agree is essential, and finally that we have a way to get at this that will not impact on narrowing or distorting the curriculumall seem far-fetched. Politically, not to mention technically, this seems beyond our current human capacity.

Add to it that such a testing system would demonstrate that huge majorities of the students in some states are failing by these standards and it seems politically even more unlikely. Of course, that's perhaps one of the few reasons I'd like it. How about, for starters, if we agree that we do not give any test to high school students before trying it out on all state and federal legislatorsas a kind of base line? We might also test trustees of universities and major corporations.

I wrote a book, "Will Standards Save Public Education," in 2000 (Beacon) in which I set out the assumptions underlying test-based standards and contrast them to an alternate set of assumptions. If you didn't read itit might help us to see where we diverge.

Remember, what we're arguing about are mandated state-sponsored tests about intellectual truth. The information, while not high stakes re. students in your proposal, is high stakes for the intellectual and democratic assumptions upon which the nation rests. The fallout of testing is, as we both agree, not irrelevant as some test-makers argue in claiming no responsibility for the narrowing of the curriculum. But there is narrowing of many sorts, and any national system in a nation as diverse and huge as ours has serious reverberations. How would yours avoid it?

Which reminds me of what we face in NYC right now at the other end of the spectrumnot 18-years-olds but 4- and 5-year-olds. NYC has sent principals (no names because this is supposed to be super confidential) copies of practice tests which they are expected to hand out to parents who must come to school to get them. Such parents must promise to reveal nothing about the pre-tests, in exchange for being able to use the information to help prepare their children. Hush hush. One outcome available to parents who agree is a leg up on getting their kids into gifted and talented classesopen to the top 5 percent of national test-takers. (Despite our knowledge of how IQ testswhich these aredifferentially impact on kids based on economics and raceNYC is proposing this as part of its drive for equity!) What happens to the information garnered from the other 95 percent?

Erikson Institute's Sam Meisels, perhaps America's most eminent expert on early childhood, has written extensively on the unreliability of early childhood testing. We know a lotand it's all bad news. On the basis of this, Congress agreed to remove standardized testing for Head Starters. But not NYC 4-5-year-olds. If anyone reading this letter has the inclinationplease write, call and holler! It's coming next to you. I wonder who, in the field of early-childhood education, they consulted? Or did they just assume that based on their experience in business, law, Wall Street, et al they knew best?

And imagine, officially involving parents in the test-prep game! I suppose they can claim that this is leveling the field! It's alsoif they knew anything about norm-based testing (which these are)further corrupting the instrument itself once we prep for it! IQ tests are based on the assumption that everyone is taking it under the same conditions as the population they were normed on.

I see national testing as another nail in the coffin of a nation prized for being creative and innovative. I know, Diane, that textbooks often establish dumb standards, too. But whatever leads you to believe that these tests won't repeat what's already in (and not in) those textbooks??? At least now some schoolsand not just private onescan ignore them or use them as mere back-up. There remains another way to get good information without dumbing education down; sampled in-depth testing (which NAEP started out doing) could be invaluable, based on interviews, performance tasks, writing samples, etc.

We could feed our adult thirst for knowledge without mandating that schools deprive kids of a taste of the real thing. I know, I knowonly some kids now get that kind of education; but what's kept me going for 40-plus years is trying to spread the real thing to more and more kids. I know it's do-able; but it's getting harder and harder.


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