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Testing Gone Wild

The news that New York State will lengthen its math and language arts tests for elementary and middle school students to three hours beginning this April is another reminder that common sense is woefully lacking in the accountability movement. According to John King Jr., the state's education commissioner, the change is part of the effort to "fine-tune tests of student performance" ("State Tests Extended to About Three Hours," The New York Times, Dec. 19).

I'd be very interested in knowing exactly what King means by that statement, and how he justifies his decision. When I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District to students in grades ten, eleven and twelve, final exams were two hours long. That was more than enough time to sample what students had learned. I can't imagine subjecting children in elementary school to tests lasting any longer. Yet that is exactly what New York State intends to do. Even more astounding is that at three hours, New York's tests will still be shorter than those administered in many other states, where they sometimes take four-and-a-half hours.

Testing is an indispensable part of the educational process. But it has taken on a life of its own that threatens to dominate everything else. Already some districts lose up to nearly two weeks of instructional time. I don't know of any other country where so much time, energy and money are devoted to testing. Yet reformers ignore what America's most successful competitors are doing in the smug belief that they know what is best. The irony is that these are the same reformers who insist that educational decisions be evidence-based.

Perhaps recognizing that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill in October that would have extended California's testing. He correctly pointed out in his veto message that doing so would further lessen the likelihood of learning for its own sake. Instead, Brown suggested the use of panels of inspectors to visit and assess schools. England has long used this approach known as Ofsted. Inspectors not only spend time in classrooms but also observe students between classes.

Massachusetts is working on a program to assess children as soon as they enter kindergarten in order to determine how prepared they are for school ("State aims to test kindergartners," Boston Globe, Oct. 2). But unlike New York, teachers will observe and question children during classroom activities to make their evaluation. They will not be administering standardized tests. Moreover, the data collected will be used strictly for diagnostic purposes.

The growth of testing has all the characteristics of the formation of a bubble. Once it pops, which all bubbles eventually do, the full damage will become apparent. The trouble, however, is that by then it will be too late to remedy matters.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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