The emphasis on student testing at the heart of the Bush administration's education plan forces Americans to confront a question that haunts patients who are diagnosed with deadly diseases: Do we want to know just how bad a fix we are in, or would we prefer not to know?
In some of our more mediocre institutions of lower learning, worried teachers and administrators hope that we opt to remain in the dark. Now that President Bush has signaled a willingness to negotiate on his plan to divest funds from schools that demonstrate a knack for failure, those intent on preserving the educational status quo say that the real threat to public education is not too little money -- but too much testing.
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Bush wants to require states to test students every year from third grade to eighth. Schools would have to show student progress from year to year and report the results of the tests by race, gender, English-language proficiency, disability and socioeconomic status. That way, if poor and minority students do not test well -- which is to say if it is revealed that they were not taught well -- their low scores cannot be hidden by being blended into an average for the school.
This masterstroke means long-overdue accountability for schools that are content to highlight the best and bury the rest. Regular testing also keeps parents in the loop about how their children are doing.
In an attempt to stop the Republican president from carving more into what they have traditionally claimed as their turf, Senate Democrats quickly put forward their own plan calling for just three tests in the 13 grades from kindergarten through high school. This watered-down approach dilutes accountability by spreading the blame for student failure across several grade levels, thus making it difficult to point fingers. That Democrats are so eager to protect teachers from criticism may have something to do with the millions of dollars the nation's largest teachers unions have showered on Democratic candidates in the last few election cycles.
Critics of so-called high stakes testing, in scrutinizing the Bush plan, complain about the difficulty of measuring a year's worth of teaching with a single test. Curiously, the critics, which include academics responsible for training the teachers of tomorrow, never express similar reservations about the multitude of teacher-administered tests that students take in any given school year in subjects ranging from algebra to science to English.
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Most reformers, meanwhile, believe that American schools need more testing, more often. Matt Gandal is vice president of Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization established by governors and business leaders to push states to raise academic standards. For Gandal, real education reform comes in three steps: set higher standards, assess how well students meet them, and then take action to improve student performance.
Naturally, all this talk about finding out what students really know -- and pinpointing exactly who did or did not teach it to them -- has public school officials terrified. Educators are smart enough to know that if parents and communities are informed as to just how poorly their students are performing, compared with those in others schools, they will demand to know why. And parents and communities are smart enough to know that a poor student is often evidence of a poor teacher. Once identified, ineffective teachers, and the administrators who supervise them, could have their careers short-circuited.
Under the current system, the career prospects for others are no brighter. The American Association of University Women recently issued a study that found that American schools are not meeting the educational needs of Hispanic girls, or Latinas. The high-school graduation rate for Latinas is lower than for girls in any other racial or ethnic group, and Latinas are less likely to take college entrance exams and advanced placement classes or enroll in and graduate from college.
While the study is too quick to flirt with stereotypes -- attributing some of the responsibility for this performance on cultural norms, family needs and peer pressure -- it does identify tracking and other schoolhouse practices as setting low expectations for Latina students.
Proponents of testing are correct that we should not blame the thermometer for the fever. It now seems likely that the educational practitioners fighting off more testing know full well that the patient is ailing, and they have no interest in anyone else finding out. After all, many of them long ago lost confidence in their ability to heal.