Basic skills tests carry too much clout

For the past five years, Minnesota high schools have required students to pass basic-skills tests before they may graduate. Besides students, teachers have also been affected. Our growing faith in standardized exams is pressuring teachers and schools to reform, and not necessarily for the better.
Improving classroom instruction is one of the most popular reasons cited for standardized testing. Evidence indicates that high-stakes testing, such as the graduation standard, causes teachers to alter the content of their classes to match the examinations.
The basic-skills exams, which cover mathematics, reading and writing, are causing schools to revamp their curriculum to boost results. Some districts hire tutors; others now require that students take English and math classes every day. Teachers focus more on test-specific material and, at least according to the numbers, their efforts have paid off. In most schools, besides those with a growing number of non-English speaking students, more seniors are meeting the basic-skills graduation requirements than in the previous five years.
But this does not mean that batteries of standardized tests are the answer to educational woes. Administrators should be wary when tests start dictating changes in the curriculum and the allocation of money. Some experts caution that rising test scores do not always indicate rising aptitude. The willingness of many educators in Minnesota to alter their methods in response to hotly debated standardized tests seems hasty.
Now that teachers are changing their methods in the classroom to help students master the “basic skills,” one has to wonder, have we been teaching or testing the wrong things? The former would imply that many of us have received a less than ideal education. The latter could have dire consequences for the educational system as teachers place too much emphasis on passing the tests.
Statewide testing standards have forced schools and faculty to be accountable and visible to the public. This is beneficial, as it pressures school districts to hire and retain competent teachers. But the most dangerous consequence of putting too much faith in basic-skills testing is awarding public money based on test results. This approach, which might seem merit-based and motivational, only hinders schools and rationalizes a “blame-the-victim” mentality.
High school students must face all-or-nothing test anxiety when their graduation hinges on a series of tests. Some kids equate success on the exams with success in life. Considering the possible consequences, this seems realistic.
The graduation standards are one more manifestation of meritocracy — a growing trend according to many experts. You cannot argue with merit. But the important question is, how do we measure it? Legislators and school administrators must honestly believe the graduation exams measure aptitude accurately before they continue to reform education to fit the state-mandated basic-skills requirements.