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September 08, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Editorial: Time to reassess student testing Editorial: Time to reassess student testing (September 08, 2004)

'Teaching to the test' or, worse, 'studying to the test' may have become a corrosive educational norm for our schools, locally and nationally

It is hard to argue against such high-sounding catch phrases as, "No Child Left Behind" -- the name of the Bush Administration's national educational-testing centerpiece.

But as local schools digest the recently released scores for the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests and the federally mandated scores of progress on the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as an alphabet soup of other tests faced by students during the year, one wonders how much these tests have inappropriately become the dominant measurement of the quality of eduction..

We are not talking about a return to fuzzy, unmeasurable concepts clouded in educationalese, such as "fostering an appreciation of democratic values in a diverse environment." Such phrases -- which floated around schools from the 1950s through the 1970s, at least -- sound almost as good as no child left behind, but what do they mean?

Yet it is an extreme swing in the wrong direction when a young person's entire future rests on a SAT-test score, when school budgets are impacted by high or low cumulative scores on standardized tests supposed to measure school quality, and when the media focuses on easily reported numbers instead of deeper (yet more challenging to report) issues and trends in education.

Do we want our children's education to become predominantly a mad race for high scores to qualify for a few "top schools" -- whose ratings themselves may be largely fraudulent (see guest opinion on the facing page)? Do we want our school officials to focus unduly on tests that purportedly measure school or school-district performance, with penalties for low scores?

At what point does an over-emphasis on testing begin to foster student burn-out, overload (often presenting itself as boredom or high-risk behavior), indifference, or manifestations of stress and depression?

Despite abundant anecdotal evidence about how tests dominate the lives of our children -- some have called this "stealing our children's childhood" -- we do not see how an average parent or citizen can judge how much is too much when it comes to focusing on tests and test results. How can we tell if the attempt to measure education is warping the nature and fabric of education?

There are, in the finer traditions of American education, deep rivers of philosophical, scientific, literary and artistic knowledge to be shared -- not just crammed in for high test scores.

There are important themes and patterns of history and the continuing struggle to understand and manage the age-old problem of societal violence; of the psychology and sociology of how people attempt to live together in functional societies; of human health and systems to provide health care; of a wondrous world of technology; and the micro and macro economics that affect all of us.

And, particularly in our time, we need to impart a better understanding of the incredibly subtle and invasive marketing/manipulation techniques used for everything from soap to presidential candidates. The very future of American democracy and our freedoms of thought and expression are at stake if we fail to impart a basic "media literacy" to our future generations -- for those who are aware of the techniques of opinion molding are to a large degree immunized against them.

There is evidence that subjects such as the above are being slighted or ignored in the drive for ever-higher standardized test scores. And we may be paying far too high a price in terms of student, parent and teacher/administrator stress for an intangible, elusive goal.

It would be a great public service if institutions such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford's School of Education and local school districts could join forces to do a "testing audit" to determine whether testing is overly dominant in our schools and how that impacts both core education and the lives of students and families.

Such a study -- examining how the growth of standardized testing has affected teaching, learning, and student stress and motivation -- could serve as a catalyst for a corrective action, if needed. And coming from an area well-known for its academic achievement and high expectations would make its results all the more powerful.

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