Kill the Test, Welcome Failure

Posted: May 09, 2001 12:00 AM
Two conflicting liberal voices clash when it comes to school testing. One says, "I want to help those less privileged than me." The other says, "I'm so special, I shouldn't be tested." Or, "My kids are so special, they shouldn't be tested." That latter voice seems to be winning in a few choice districts across America. In Marin County,Calif., for example, more than 35 percent of Sir Francis Drake High School students and more than 22 percent of Tamalpais High School students presented waivers from their parents excusing them from the Stanford-9 achievement test, a.k.a. the STAR test. I support parents' right to abstain, but I don't respect the choice. It shows no understanding of why then-Gov. Pete Wilson implemented the test. So a little history: Too many children have attended California public schools and received passing grades without receiving an adequate education. Because STAR scores students individually, it can notify parents that their children may not be reading near grade level. The public release of school and district scores means that bad schools no longer can hide failure. Also, the STAR test scores provide a strong indicator as to whether various programs work. STAR means that schools can learn quickly from other schools' smart moves and big mistakes. A few days of testing can lead to semesters without bad books. But it is boring, some students complain. One student told The San Francisco Chronicle, "The test measures how well you can listen to facts and spit them back out, not if you comprehend anything." That sounds like the spitting back of the same old rant against standardized tests. Besides, there are a great many students who can't spit test facts back -- and it's a sure thing they don't comprehend what they can't regurgitate. Is the test perfect? No. Individual scores are less reliable than group scores. (A kid can have a bad day; but large groups absorb daily aberrations.) The tests don't register creativity, noted Doug Stone, of the Department of Education. "It tells us some things about students," he said, "it doesn't tell us other things." Critics are right to assert that other factors ought to be considered when the state ranks schools on its Academic Performance Index (API). The state is working on including accurate data on graduation rates and attendance rates, and should move faster. Tamalpais Union High School District board member Richard Raznikov supported the boycott even though his district would have had to forfeit a shot of reward money -- it received $750,000 last year -- if fewer than 90 percent of students took the test. And boycotters forfeited a shot at $1,000 scholarships. (Last year, 339 students won them.) Finally, America, you see in Raznikov a school board member willing to turn away tax money. Alas, his goal is to bury tests that show how well or poorly schools are doing. Raznikov is worried about the "harm" the test causes. The STAR test stresses students out, he said. It doesn't give points for knowledge not among recognized standards, thus it "warps the curriculum." Which is true. It warps curricula so that schools have to teach certain things to all California children. How terrible. Boo hoo.