Standardized Tests Flunk Common Sense 101

San Francisco Examiner Monday, Aug 23, 1999

By Caroline Grannan

The people who make decisions about California's public schools are enraptured at the moment by the notion that scoring every kid nationwide on the exact same test will make our schools great.

This idea is propelled by a weird political whirlwind rather than by common sense or educational know-how.

California schoolkids were tested this spring on material they hadn't been taught. To anyone this side of addlebrained, that's obviously ridiculous.

But the president of the state Board of Education defended the tests with a straight face.

"It's important to move ahead with this part of the testing program," declared Robert L. Trigg importantly, even though the tests cover "material that, in some cases, hasn't yet been incorporated into the schools' curricula."

That could be called silly, surreal or scary. It's also a waste of valuable classroom time spent on hours of pointless testing.

Meanwhile, the test's publisher is in hot water for messing up the entire process.

Harcourt Educational Measurement got the tests to schools late, delivering them by such resourceful methods as dumping the supposedly confidential material on the ground outside a school in the rain.

And Harcourt is running way behind schedule on getting the tests scored, because it keeps fouling up the numbers.

All this doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the results.

The obsession with ranking school districts by test score is just as screwy.

Each California district can decide which "special education" kids, including those who are merely mildly learning-disabled, to exclude from the scoring.

In other words, any school can artificially inflate its scores by maneuvering to eliminate its low scorers from the averages.

And word is that schools in high-income, high status districts are the most aggressive about doing so.

The California Department of Education is considering requiring that every excluded child's test be given a zero, which would be factored into the averages.

That's reportedly done in a few states, but it's unlikely to happen here as Chambers of Commerce and Realtors cash in on high local scores.

Recently a Detroit newspaper, using sophisticated computerized statistical analyses, discovered that test scores show much more about what kind of homes students live in than about how well they're being taught at school.

The data showed that scores tie directly to the income and education levels of the parent population - no matter what schools do. The findings led the Michigan press and educational establishment to rethink their emphasis on ranking districts by test score.

Of course parents want to know how well our children are learning, and tests are an important way to find that out.

But we don't want our kids' time wasted on a frenzy of meaningless tests - especially when they're produced, processed and scored in a dither of comical ineptitude.

Caroline Grannan is a San Francisco PTA mom and writer.