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Probably the single most contentious question in education today is the role standardized tests should play in assessing students and teachers in public schools. Universal standardized testing is the result of what's called "the standards movement," a push to raise the bar in public education; standardized testing was also a main part of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Act, which Congress passed earlier this year. Schools will be required to test all kids in grades three through eight in reading and math every year. The point is to be sure children are learning what they need to learn-and if they aren't, to find ways to fix the problem.
For most families, such questions sort themselves out without a terrific amount of anguish. But there are other school issues that aren't so straightforward. These are the ones that will shape your child's entire school year:Tests and More Tests
What's at stake: Probably the single most contentious question in education today is the role standardized tests should play in assessing students and teachers in public schools. Universal standardized testing is the result of what's called "the standards movement," a push to raise the bar in public education; standardized testing was also a main part of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Act, which Congress passed earlier this year. Schools will be required to test all kids in grades three through eight in reading and math every year. The point is to be sure children are learning what they need to learn-and if they aren't, to find ways to fix the problem.
According to a recent Public Agenda/Education Week poll, at least 90 percent of all adults agree that the standards movement is a good thing. Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association (NEA) and co-author of The New Public School Parent (Penguin, 2002), believes tests work as a diagnostic tool. "High standards are absolutely essential for improving education, and there's no question that testing is important, too," he says. "Obviously, we have to know where kids are in order to develop the kinds of programs that can help them learn."
But there are also potential downsides to these tests:
All tests aren't created equal. There are two categories of standardized tests: Norm-referenced tests, which assess how an individual student ranks in comparison to other students around the country; and criterion-referenced tests, which measure a child's performance in specific subjects. Both kinds of tests can provide useful information to school systems, says Scott Snyder, Ph.D., director of the Center for Educational Accountability at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
But both types of tests also have flaws. Norm-referenced tests are used by a wide range of states and thus can't match the curriculum of every school district-a disconnect that means your child could be tested on material she hasn't even encountered yet. Criterion-referenced tests, while more likely to match a school district's actual curriculum, are evaluated by standards that may vary by state. Thus, two children with the very same level of skill might earn different scores.
Some kids simply don't perform well on tests. Other children may have an "off" day or two during test week-because they have a cold, because their parents aren't getting along, etc. Such exceptions to the rule aren't particularly problematic as long as other evaluations are also used to judge what a student knows.
The trouble is that often people, particularly legislators setting state educational policy, make test scores the sole criterion for judging students. "High-stakes" testing, as this practice is known, dictates that standardized test scores alone determine whether a child is sent to summer school or is required to repeat a grade, whether the child is allowed to graduate, or-at the other end of the spectrum-whether a child qualifies for a gifted program or magnet school. Teacher evaluations play no part in the decision; a student's grades are irrelevant. The test score is all that matters.
Test pressures can narrow the curriculum and limit teaching innovation. "Teachers are under tremendous pressure to teach students to be successful on specific tests," says Snyder. Even teachers in high-performing schools feel this because districts often pressure schools to raise scores from the previous year no matter how high they were to begin with.
With so much emphasis on raising test scores, teachers may spend a disproportionate amount of time teaching test-taking skills. Responding to a class's particular interests is taboo; more innovative assignments like oral reports and group projects are out the door. In some schools, teachers have even cancelled recess to allow for more time for test prep.
What you can do about it: First, get informed. Find out which type of test is given in your child's school, what kind of (and how much) test preparation teachers are expected to give and how the scores are used by the school and the district. If you're unhappy with the answers, make some phone calls and write letters expressing your discontent to the school board, to the superintendent, to your state representative-not simply to your child's teacher, who's probably just as unhappy about the situation as you are. And remember that the best option for substantive change with any bureaucracy is to band together with other like-minded parents. "The school district is more likely to be responsive to common concerns expressed in a unified way by organized parent groups, like the PTA, than by disgruntled individuals," says Snyder.
At home, the best thing you can do for your kids is to help relieve any test-prep stress they may be feeling, especially in the lower grades when they're still developing their attitudes about school. So while it's smart to make sure they get a good night's sleep and eat a nutritious breakfast during test week, don't make a big deal about such things. Encourage your children to do their best, but let them know that there are lots of ways to excel aside from performing well on tests.