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Teachers Find Ally in Evaluating Performance

When teachers first argued against the use of standardized tests to judge their effectiveness, they were accused of trying to avoid accountability. But their cause has now been picked up by parents, who certainly can't be said to be opposed to accountability when their own children are involved.

I have reference to parent activists in New York City, home of the nation's largest school district ("Dear Teacher, Johnny Is Skipping the Test," The New York Times, Oct. 14). A small but growing number of parents are showing their disdain for standardized tests by boycotting both field testing and actual testing. Although it's too soon to know how far the movement will spread, what is apparent is its conviction that standardized testing is undermining the educational experience for students because of the high-stakes involved.

My views on standardized testing are contained in The Answer Sheet that was published on Oct. 8 in The Washington Post ("Still obtuse about standardized testing"). I think that their primary value is as a diagnostic tool. Finland uses these tests strictly for that purpose and never makes the results public. I'm not saying that this practice alone accounts for the reputation of schools there. But I think the Finns are on the right track by eliminating punitive consequences.

Standardized tests can also be used as one factor in evaluating teachers, provided the tests are reworked to make them more sensitive to instruction. The ones presently in widespread use do not allow this to be done. As a result, teachers are being unfairly penalized. Let's not forget that the purpose of assessment is to provide feedback to both teachers and to students. That's why I've long urged inclusion of portfolios as part of the process. I recognize their shortcomings, but I think they can provide valuable information about learning when done properly.

Those who defend standardized testing in its current form need to consider another of the inevitable consequences. This time the scene is El Paso, where cheating took a different turn. Administrators in the 64,000-student school district are accused of using a variety of tactics to prevent low-performing students from dragging down test scores ("El Paso Schools Confront Scandal of Students Who 'Disappeared' at Test Time," The New York Times, Oct. 14). To prevent these students from doing so on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, they were transferred to charter schools, discouraged from enrolling in school or told not to go to school on test day.

We have not seen the end of this travesty by a long shot. As pressure mounts, Campbell's Law will make itself more prominent. So what started ostensibly as a way of improving educational quality for students is inexorably doing precisely the opposite.

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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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