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Tinkering with tests

January 30, 1997

Tinkering with tests

Pity the poor teachers!

Seven years after Maryland schools received their first "report card" in the Maryland School Performance Program, lawmakers want to add yet another layer of testing to assure that graduating students are competent in their subjects. We thought that's what the state's so-called functional tests were supposed to measure, and we have two concerns about another set of tests.

Despite research (and some stellar examples) which show positive results when principals and teachers are allowed the freedom to use techniques they know will work, a new group of tests will only bind schools more closely to a state bureaucracy that may or may not know how to get the material across.

More important, if teachers know their own performance and that of their schools will be measured by student test scores, they'll be under pressure to "teach to the test." In such circumstances, it wouldn't surprise us if students learned less about how to think and more about how to take tests.

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Before we support any change in testing procedures, we'd like to see some evidence that the "report card" and the functional testing programs are not working. With six years' worth of results in hand, there ought to be some conclusions that can be drawn, although it was clear early on that some of its assumptions - that better attendance rates would automatically guarantee better performance - were not accurate.

The reality is that no program of testing or teaching will work if students don't come to school ready to learn, with the proper attitude toward those who are teaching them. The strong academic performance of some recent immigrants' children indicates that when education is highly valued by the family, many barriers (including language) can be overcome.

The real challenge for lawmakers, then, is how to engage parents in their children's education. That would involve telling them the hard truth - that what many are doing now isn't enough. Faced with such a job, no wonder they'd rather tinker with the tests instead.

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