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By Deborah Meier

 

Every year, major test publishers spend millions of dollars promoting their products. Myriads of smaller companies bombard our principal’s desks daily with tools guaranteed to improve test scores. Researchers and policymakers use test scores as the coin of the realm, determining what schools, communities, states and programs of instruction work and don’t work. Children’s test scores determine who gets what state and federal monies, and—of late—rewards and sanctions.

 

Reams of test scores pile up on teachers’ and administrators’ desks, requiring “close analysis,” as all scramble to improve the results—or else.

 

There is one small bastion of sanity and skepticism in the midst of this test mania: the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, FairTest. Often thought of as the center of anti-testing activity, in fact it’s not “anti-” but one of the few places where testing is viewed as problematic, a device that needs to be balanced with other forms of assessment and measurement.

 

Once, standardized tests were considered to be useful only if there were no high stakes attached. “Teaching to the test” was viewed as a form of cheating, and testing young children was a recognized no-no. All of these are now standard practice. Test-makers once provided detailed instructions explaining what tests could not measure; today they reserve those vital cautions for scholars.

 

A mere ten years ago, the consensus among both psychometricians and reformers was that the day of the cheap, multiple-choice test was over. A new type of instrument was needed—one closer to the classroom, based on samples of authentic performance over time—and that the day of the cheap multiple-choice test was over. In those days, FairTest’s primary role was to promote forward-thinking approaches, while keeping an eye on backtracking.

 

Almost overnight, standardized exams—of more or less the exact same type we had known in the ‘60s and ‘70s—reemerged as the answer to a bevy of educational and social problems.

 

Entrenched in state and federal laws and with increasingly heavy sanctions for those doing poorly. These tests were deemed the centerpiece of reforms ostensibly aimed at “closing the achievement gap” between whites and blacks and Latinos, the new “civil rights” crusade of our time. While every other indicator that separated rich and poor, black and brown and white, were increasingly moving apart, attempts to directly close those gaps were dismissed as unAmerican, while doing it via schools alone was seen as apple pie.

 

While the views of FairTest are widely held among educators and measurement experts, FairTest alone has the raison d’etre of raising questions about claims that tests are the key to educational equity and quality. While education and civil rights groups have of late been devoting considerable resources to the job (often with prodding or help from FairTest), no other major think tank, university research center, independent research center, or political organization has taken on the task.

 

Too many have concluded that tests are here to stay. They say we have no choice but to accept the parameters, beat them at their own game, transform our schools around the tests' imperatives, and hope that some day better sense will prevail and balance will be restored.

 

It doesn’t happen that way. The future doesn’t roll in magically, but comes into being by the actions of people.

 

Every time we slow them down, that’s a victory. Every time we help one child, one parent or one teacher understand the limits of testing, that’s a victory. Every time we open the door wider for other ways of thinking about what it means to be well-educated and how we measure it, is a victory. FairTest, with the help of a network of allies among parents, teachers and researchers, makes these victories possible.

 

Small and financially precarious as FairTest is, the organization has strung together remarkable accomplishments(See pages 8+9). They keep education and civil rights groups talking with one another and focused on rolling back the testing mania. They help colleges decide not to rely on standardized tests for admissions decisions and scholarship awards. They are the regular voice of testing sanity in stories in media outlets across the nation. FairTest.org and the Examiner are used by are used by tens of thousands of parents, students, activists, legislators and citizens.

 

Much is at stake in the drumbeat for more testing with ever more draconian repercussions that shape even the definition of being well-educated, not to mention who will have access to education. Those of us who care about these matters need to put FairTest at the front of the line when it comes to giving our money and our time.

 

• FairTest Board member Deborah Meier founded the Central Park East and Mission Hill schools, was awarded a MacArthur “genius” award, and is a founder of the Forum for Education and Democracy.