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Hello Again, McFly! Whatever Happened to Demands for a 'New Test System'?

Standardized testing and its implications are arguably the most prominent K-12 policy topics in 2015. But if you think these concerns are anywhere close to new, it's time to step into the archives of Education Week.

A quarter-century ago, the newspaper gave page 1 billing to "Ford Study Urges New Test System to 'Open the Gates of Opportunity.'" Robert Rothman's story highlighted a study from the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy that found the system of tests in American public schools had become a "hostile gatekeeper" to those seeking greater opportunities.

The system of tests, which the Ford Foundation-funded study estimated cost schools 20 million instructional days and between $700 million to $900 million each year, often mischaracterized well-qualified students, was especially unfair to women and minorities, and "distorted" both school and social policies. 

The report also criticized the fact that many of the standardized tests being used in K-12 were multiple-choice exams, and said there should be a greater emphasis on job performance and grade point averages. There was also a push for a wider use of performance-based exams that demand greater depth of knowledge from students.

"Under no circumstances should individuals be denied an opportunity for education, training, or employment exclusively on the basis of a test score. The human animal is far more complex and far more rich than can be measured by a single test," said Bernard R. Gifford, the chairman of the testing commission and at the time the vice president for education of Apple Computer, Inc. "What we need to do is shift our emphasis from test scores to the quality of information provided by test scores."

So what are the outlines of the debate 25 years on? As you might be aware, purveyors of the latest generation of assessments from consortia like PARCC and Smarter Balanced say that their tests finally answer the demand for higher-quality tests that require more than rote memorization and filling in bubbles. And many states are reconsidering or changing exactly how standardized tests fit into their accountability systems. 

But the debate is still raging about the proper extent of testing and the degree to which it should be used to judge students, teachers, and schools. And there's a great deal of disagreement about whether testing is a civil right (particularly for poor and minority students), whether students are being over tested and (if so) who's responsible, and whether schools are prepared to administer more technologically advanced assessments, among other issues. 

So do what extent do you think we have a "new test system," and is it living up to what students, schools, and America need?


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