Testy, testy

Posted: May 18, 2003 12:00 AM

It's no mystery why teachers unions and school boards oppose standardized achievement tests and exit exams. When they're falling short, they're not eager to announce it.

It's no mystery why students don't like tests. Some fail. Some struggle. Others aren't challenged. There's no instant gratification. Some students have such a strong sense of entitlement that they've come to believe they're supposed to enjoy almost everything they do in school.

The mystery is why so many parents -- especially affluent parents -- would oppose testing. You'd think parents would be embarrassed to voice this opinion in public, because it's so anti-education -- except they are so uninformed as to not even understand what they're against.

So let me explain.

1. Tests like the STAR test diagnose problems in individual students' learning. Middle-class parents may think their kids are getting a great education, but STAR can red-flag a learning disability or signal that Buffy failed to learn a math skill. Discover the problem early, and Buffy doesn't fall further behind.

2. Standardized tests highlight what is working. When the Open Court reading program raised reading scores in Sacramento, and demonstrated weaker performance in the five schools that used a different reading series, it showed Sacramento what worked. Superintendents of other districts also could see tangible results.

3. Low test results shame schools to improve. Low-performing schools have been able to benefit greatly. Oakland Unified, for example, adopted Open Court to boost its dismal reading scores, and student literacy improved.

4. The California exit exam has forced students and schools alike to make sure that those who weren't learning much in high school at least graduate with a minimal level of reading and math skills.

University of Southern California geophysicist and education activist Martha Schwartz told me that while standardized tests generally have facilitated improvements in early education, the exit exam has brought improvement -- such as remedial reading programs for high school students -- for older kids who often have been the last to benefit from education reforms. "I don't think that anybody would be trying to do that if it weren't for the fear of the exit exam," Schwartz said -- and she had lobbied against the exit exam.

5. All students who go to a California state college or university benefit from the exit exam and standardized tests.

In 2002, 51 percent of entering freshmen were proficient in English; 63 percent were proficient in math. Those who aren't proficient are placed in remedial classes -- a huge drain on the California State University budget. When more freshmen are actually ready for college, there is more money for CSU to spend on real college classes.

As an aside, let me stipulate that the California Department of Education should work to eliminate redundancies and reduce the hours of test giving. An education official recently told me that experts are looking into reducing the number of essays in the English Language Arts portion of the exit exam, so that there's less of a "fatigue factor" from reading writing sample after writing sample. There's also talk of reducing the number of word problems in the math portion.

In a recent Chronicle story, some students told reporter Meredith May that they put in minimal effort -- some just fill in bubbles -- on achievement tests because they don't get anything out of it. If they didn't get a grade or the OK to graduate, they didn't care.

It's too bad that in the course of their education, these students and their parents never figured out that students should take the tests because they owe something in return for their free education; when they take the test, they help students who follow them. As for those parents who think that their children's time is so precious it shouldn't be spent on testing, in a vocabulary test, the word you'd check off for them is "clueless."