Standard tests won’t help public education

At a White House forum on education last Wednesday, President Clinton eagerly accepted high-profile backing for his voluntary national standardized testing for public schools plan. California Superintendent of Public Schools Delaine Eastin and 240 prominent high-technology corporate executives praised the president’s initiative, agreeing on a need for national educational standards. But there’s more to this than sudden, though appreciated, attention to America’s schools. Clinton’s self-described “crusade” for testing is indicative of an international trend toward competition in education and comparative testing.
“We need high national standards,” said Eastin. “Then we can prove to parents that we’re getting the job done.” Clinton was pleased with the support from the California superintendent. “If any state understands the challenges we face in the 21st century in the global economy and an information age, it is California,” he said. But despite the campaign-hangover jargon, Clinton’s testing plan will likely meet the same fate as health care reform.
Clinton unveiled his plan to test all fourth-graders for reading comprehension and all eighth-graders for math skills in February’s State of the Union address. The program would be voluntary on a state-by-state basis; not mandated by anything stronger than an executive request. But to date, only Michigan, Maryland and North Carolina have officially endorsed the plan, and chances are slim to none that the president’s vision of a nationwide test will ever come to pass. California, despite Eastin’s enthusiasm, is far from approving the national test.
Even on a small scale, standardized tests are controversial. California Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994 scrapped a statewide test after religious conservatives objected to selections in its reading comprehension component. Questions about bias, whether in the phrasing of questions or the resources available to students in different districts, have no easy answers. And the bottom-line drive to hold schools and teachers accountable for student success does more to shoot the messenger than remedy the many problems in public education.
Furthermore, on a global scale, the chief role of standardized tests appears to be that of breaking, not setting, conventional wisdom. The recent Third International Maths and Science Study — the largest education study in history — cast many long-held beliefs out the window. The study (in which the U.S. scored dead-average in math and a solid B in science) found little evidence to support the notions that class size, time spent per subject and, most surprisingly, education funding, had much of anything to do with academic success. If any constant arose, it was that there is no magic bullet in education.
If one thing is certain, it is the common assumption that education is a key link to economic success, whether on a personal or national level. The fact that last Wednesday’s forum was attended and supported by so many Silicon Valley executives hints that corporate America is worried that its next generation of workers, researchers and bosses won’t be well prepared. That means a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace. It may also explain Clinton’s sudden devotion to the cause. While the president’s concern is certainly merited, his testing plan is nothing if not short-sighted and superficial.