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Urban Rhythms

Will This Be on the Test?

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 5/16/2001

I've attended hundreds of PTA-type meetings over the past 20 years, both as the father of two boys and as a journalist. And in all that time, I've never once heard any parent, anywhere, at any time ask for more standardized tests as a way of holding schools accountable.

As a matter of fact, I have never noticed much concern about holding schools accountable. Parents don't have much trouble doing that. Moms and dads in both affluent and impoverished communities may not attend every PTA meeting. They may not monitor their children's homework every night the way they should. But when parents have a problem with either a classroom teacher or the principal, they organize, they march down to the school, and you had better believe that they agitate and they agitate until they get results.

No, the great concern of parents has always been their inability to hold distant elected officials accountable--elected officials and the dreaded central office, which is how parents in the hundreds of PTA meetings I've attended over the years usually refer to the inflexible education bureaucracy and the aloof school board. Politicians invented school accountability and standardized testing--for the benefit of politicians.

And now those concepts sit--like a boil, like a cancer, like a bowel movement that won't move--at the heart of President Bush's proposal for education reform, which is now before Congress.

The Bush plan, as originally presented, would require states to test all students between the third grade and the eighth grade annually, and schools would be rewarded or punished based on those results. If schools fail to perform adequately for three years, parents would be given the option, via vouchers, of sending their children to other schools, public or private, or hiring a tutor.

To be fair, Bush did not invent this scheme. Standardized tests are sweeping the country. Officials on the left, on the right, and in between have embraced standardized tests, even though not one single parent has asked for them. The political rhetoric of these times almost uniformly blames selfish teachers, lazy students, and negligent parents as the primary problems with public education. Elected officials at the local, state, and now the federal level shape their plans for education reform accordingly: Break the teachers union and scold the parents, and everything will be all right.

Educators have responded predictably. There have been reports of teachers and school administrators padding their schools' scores by assigning test questions as homework, holding coaching sessions for groups of students, and correcting answers after the tests have been handed in. The most recent allegations of cheating involved teachers at Silver Spring International Middle School in Montgomery County, who allegedly photocopied the Maryland Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills in March and distributed it among math instructors. Five teachers and two school officials have been suspended, and all sixth-graders at the school will have to take the test over. The re-test could cost the county as much as $600,000.

Such cases are still rare, but they clearly reflect the drive for "accountability" through standardized testing. So let me state this as clearly and as forcefully as I can: More tests are not the answer. Neither our children nor our teachers need them. Parents do not demand them. Only politicians and bureaucrats who do not have children in a public school, or who have no real contact with a classroom, believe that a massive government effort to design, administer, and judge standardized tests will lead to better-educated, more well-rounded children.

Standardized tests provide the opposite of accountability. They permit politicians to evade what people really want--to hold their elected officials responsible for failing to provide adequate resources and support to teachers and schools. Down here on the ground where most of us live, there is an emerging consensus about true reform: Give schools the resources they need commensurate with their mission, and put strong, effective principals in charge of each school.

The problem with this recipe is that those students with the greatest need tend to come from families with the least political power. There is no political reward for serving the poor. (Although you can never spend enough money on the children of the affluent to make the affluent happy.) Ditto for promising to put effective principals in schools: Those principals' performance would provide too concrete a yardstick by which to measure and assess a politician's performance--that is, to hold him or her accountable.

This is why politicians embrace standardized testing. Suddenly, school funding has been transformed from a right to a privilege. Instead of us judging politicians, they get to judge us. Instead of sweating under the accusing glare of angry parents from all walks of life, politicians and bureaucrats can now purse their lips like Ebeneezer Scrooge, paw through arcane statistics, shuffle papers, and decide like gods who gets rewarded and who must be punished.

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