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To Test or Not To Test?

Students at two alternative New York City public schools recently joined a small but growing national protest against high-stakes testing by boycotting the state-administered eighth-grade exams. In the belief that standardized tests jeopardize their schools' philosophies of teaching and learning, middle-school students from the Institute for Collaborative Education and the School of the Future, both in Manhattan, sat out the tests with permission from their parents. Similar boycotts took place around the state last year; in Scarsdale, for example, a majority of students boycotted the same eighth-grade tests arguing that test preparation dilutes their schools' normally more rigorous curricula.

These protests--and a lot of grumbling among parents and educators--have been provoked by recent changes in state education policy giving standardized testing a much more prominent role in New York's educational program. During the 1990s, as part of a larger reform to ensure that all students have the opportunity to achieve at the same high levels, the state created a set of standards that outline what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, as well as at high school graduation. It also designed a new set of examinations to assess whether students are meeting those standards. More recently, as part of a new System of Accountability for Student Success, schools have begun to receive state-set targets for school improvement based on their students' performance on these exams. Sanctions will be imposed on schools not meeting targets.

New York City public elementary and middle school students now take either city- or state-administered standardized tests each year from third through eighth grade. In addition to helping superintendents, principals, and teachers diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of teaching and learning in their classrooms, test scores determine whether students are promoted to the next grade and whether they are required to attend summer school. Principals are eligible for bonuses for improving test scores in their schools.

The state also abolished an old two-tiered graduation requirement that allowed many students to receive diplomas with little more than middle-school-level reading and math skills. It has phased in the requirement that, to graduate, all high school students must pass five Regents exams, once taken only by college-bound students. While the move toward ensuring a meaningful diploma for all graduates was widely applauded, many nevertheless worry about the high-stakes nature of the requirement. Students who fail just one of the exams are denied a diploma no matter what the quality of their class work. New York City's drop-out rate has climbed slowly but steadily since the Regents requirement.

The uniformity of the requirement also disturbs some educators. Those associated with vocational and alternative schools, for example, argue that all students' interests are not best served by preparing for Regents exams. In fact, a statewide coalition of 28 alternative schools, known as the New York Performance Standards Consortium, filed suit in state court last summer against the State Education Department and Commissioner Richard Mills after a waiver from testing, granted them by the previous state education commissioner, was revoked. These schools argue that their own innovative, and, in some cases, celebrated, philosophies, curricula, and assessment systems will be drastically compromised if they are forced to comply with the testing mandate. The group advocates a school-based "performance assessment system", which, it argues, is not only a more rigorous and accurate gauge of student learning but also contributes rather than detracts from effective teaching and learning. Mills says these assessments do not meet standards of validity and reliability.

These and other opponents of testing believe that standardized tests are inaccurate measures of student learning, that no single measure should be used to make important educational decisions. They argue that it is unfair to create high stakes for students because so many factors other than student effort and ability (e.g., teacher experience, test-curriculum alignment, tests' margins of error, and student socioeconomic status) affect testing outcomes. They worry that testing often penalizes students, especially minorities, who have received an inadequate education. They also believe that testing policies have a detrimental effect on teaching Ü tempting, or in some cases forcing, teachers to narrow their curricula to what is being tested and spending valuable classroom time on test preparation.

Testing proponents, on the other hand, argue that standardized testing ensures that all students are being held to the same standards, identifies students who need extra help, and shows whether schools are meeting the needs of all their students. They say that testing creates greater school accountability by regularly measuring student performance and publicizing outcome data, and that high-stakes testing motivates students and schools by creating goals and setting consequences for those not meeting them.

Meanwhile, as the testing debate goes on, a state education department analysis of test-score data, released at the end of March, for the first time broke down elementary and middle school test results by race and ethnicity. Overall, it found a significant performance gap--with white and Asian students scoring much better than black and Hispanic students in both English and math. (For complete test-score data, see the full 2002 statewide school report card.)

Such data, reported in New York a year before it will be required nationwide by the new federal education law, illustrates both the benefits and the dangers of standardized tests. On the one hand, testing data provide important evidence of a serious systemic problem that must be solved; we must insist that our schools learn to educate black and Hispanic students as well as white and Asian students. On the other hand, no amount of testing, by itself, will solve this problem, so we must think carefully about whether, given the systemic nature of the problem and the snowballing effects of failure, high-stakes testing causes individual students to suffer unnecessarily.

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

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