Ten Years of Progress Toward Assessment Reform

General Testing

"New Organization Will Defend Rights of Test-Takers, Fight For Assessment Reform," read the headlines ten years ago this fall, as leaders of major education reform, civil rights, and student groups announced the formation of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. Launched with a news conference at the 1985 annual meeting of the College Board in San Francisco, FairTest promised to challenge what Board member Chuck Stone called "the nation's cradle-to-grave gatekeepers for education and employment."


The new organization's creation was catalyzed by the settlement of the landmark "Golden Rule" lawsuit which charged that the insurance agent licensing exam made by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) was racially biased and not job related. The 1984 consent decree in that case created a new way of choosing test items so that the exam was fairer, not easier, and required ETS to make public data about the test and its impacts. At a follow-up conference held in the summer of 1985 to respond to interest in expanding the scope of the Golden Rule protections, some four dozen activists unanimously agreed that a new organization should be created to fight for assessment reform.


From the day FairTest announced its existence, the office was "overwhelmed with opportunities." Calls and letters from every part of the U.S. and, often, around the world illuminated major problems with every facet of assessment. Some of the challenges:


Norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests used for kindergarten entrance, grade school promotion, course placement, and high school graduation, were rapidly multiplying across the country, exerting a narrowing and dumbing-down effect on educational quality;


The U.S. Secretary of Education annually issued "Wall Charts" falsely comparing state educational performance on the basis of college admissions test scores;


Nearly every college and university required applicants to submit standardized test scores to be considered for admission;


Many public and private scholarship competitions relied on test scores to select award winners;


More and more occupations were adopting standardized tests to select and promote employees;


The nation's largest exam manufacturer, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), used its management of the federal government's official information center on testing to limit the flow of critical data;


The standardized testing industry held a monopoly over public opinion on assessment issues with no organized voice challenging its claims.


Through FairTest-led campaigns over the past decade, there has been progress in all of these areas. Beginning with the release of major reports on test-score optional admissions (Beyond Standardized Tests) and gender bias in college entrance exams (Sex Bias in College Admissions Tests) FairTest quickly defined itself as the leading critic of the SAT, ACT and similar exams. The organization's scope soon broadened with publication of Fallout From the Testing Explosion, documenting the damage caused by the more than one hundred million standardized exams administered in U.S. public schools each year.


Coalitions were formed and campaigns launched to extend due process protections to more test-takers, fight for reforms in the National Merit program, and press for "genuine accountability" through performance-based assessment. Major victories came with a gender bias lawsuit overturning New York State's SAT-score based scholarship system, adoption of a "Bill of Rights" for test-takers accused of cheating on university admissions tests, the defeat of proposals for national exams for all elementary and high school students, and the elimination of norm-referenced testing requirements in the federal Title I/Chapter I remedial education program.


New publications such as The SAT Coaching Cover up broadened the debate while an ever-growing list of annotated bibliographies and fact sheets provided tools for academics and testing reformers. The widely disseminated Standing Up to the SAT, Standardized Tests and Our Children, and most recently Implementing Performance Assessment, reached large national audiences (click to order publications).


Financial backing for this ambitious agenda, originally provided through a seed grant from the Golden Rule Corporation, expanded to include the Rockefeller Family Fund as well as the Ford, Diamond, MacArthur, Joyce, Hazen, Lilly and McIntosh Foundations. A Board of Directors of education reform and civil rights advocates provides leadership with advice from a distinguished panel of experts on a National Policy Panel (see lists, p. 2). In addition to foundation grants, more than a thousand individuals each year help support FairTest by purchasing publications and making contributions.


As it celebrates its 10th anniversary, FairTest and its allies can look back on a decade-long track-record of accomplishments:


Performance-based assessment is rapidly expanding at the classroom, school, system, and state level;


At least 235 four-year colleges now have test-score optional policies, in which undergraduate admissions applicants are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores;


The ERIC Assessment and Evaluation center is no longer run by ETS but by a neutral academic institution;


Several states have terminated test-score based scholarship competitions, with the National Collegiate Athletic Association and National Merit Scholarship Corporation under heavy pressure to change their selection formulas;


The media frequently balance stories about testing with views from critics and assessment reformers;


National, regional and local education, civil rights, and employment organizations feature FairTest speakers, initiatives, and literature;


The U.S. Congress and half a dozen state legislatures have held formal hearings on testing reform proposals with FairTest staff and other leaders as witnesses; and


The federal government has suspended its two most frequently administered employment exams while a host of law suits have challenged the validity, equity and necessity of exams required by local governments and private employers; and


A quarterly newsletter, The FairTest Examiner, updates a growing national movement about developments in assessment and encourages participation in testing reform campaigns.


New Threats

Though substantial progress has been made toward assessment reform, new hurdles appear regularly. The publication of The Bell Curve last year reinvigorated those who believe "intelligence" is a single thing that tests can measure accurately, and that ability is distributed differentially by race. Simultaneously, right-wing political and religious groups have begun demanding a return to multiple-choice exams as part of their "back-to-basics platform, resulting in a retreat to traditional testing in a few states.


In the university admissions arena, test manufacturers are pressing a lawsuit to dismantle Truth-in-Testing, a key protection for test takers and a valuable instrument for independent analysts who want to review actual exam items. The nation's conservative climate has also encouraged attacks on college admissions and employment hiring practices that encourage both excellence and equity by emphasizing factors other than test scores. The ongoing furor over affirmative action programs in California epitomizes a movement which increasingly claims standardized exams can measure "merit."


At all levels, the development of new forms of computer administered exams -- many of which have not been exposed to any form of public scrutiny -- confronts assessment reformers. While it is difficult to criticize these new products without data about their impacts, it would be equally foolish to embrace them blindly.


Agenda for the Future

In its second decade, FairTest will address all these challenges. The problems and principles that motivated the creation of this unique organization in 1985 remain just as compelling in 1995.


FairTest's current workplan -- dissemination of Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems and advocacy for performance-based assessments in grades K-12; leadership of the movements for test-score optional university admissions; coordinating campaigns to end reliance on standardized exams for determining high school graduation, eligibility for college scholarships and athletic eligibility; expanding efforts to base employment hiring and promotion decisions on performance on-the-job, not on test taking skills; and conducting massive public education to combat right-wing claims that test scores equal "merit" -- provides ample tasks for an organization with twice FairTest's current staff and budget. With the continued support from a growing national constituency, these challenges, too, can be met.