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Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3...
By Alfred S. Posamentier, Ph.D.

For many decades the United States has been a world model for testing students to assess their progress in what is hoped to be an objective process. Actually, one of the first American tests, the New York State Regents examinations, when they were first introduced about 140 years ago, were originally intended as a device to rate teachers. (Still today teachers compare their students' passing rate with one another, as a measure of their own success as teachers.) In the last twenty years many European countries have embraced testing increasing more frequently to assess their students' achievement. Some have even begun to use the American style of "short answer items"-previously unknown to the Europeans, who have always used essay type items as a means of assessment.

Testing in the United States has taken on a new dimension in recent years, encouraged by the federal "No Child Left Behind" law, and dramatized by some recent debacles in the testing process. One such testing fiasco occurred in New York State in June 2003, when the Math A Regents Examination yielded some startlingly poor results. I was invited by New York State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills to join a panel to study the Math A testing situation and offer some recommendations. Our panel found the test to be flawed and the math standards in need of revision, especially to provide more specificity and clarity so as to make them more useful to the teachers in the state. The standards are now being revised by a committee on which I was also asked to serve.

These events have once more brought to the fore the question of "to test, or not to test." The advantages of testing are well known. Testing insures that all teachers will cover the requisite material, and that there is some objective way of assessing student achievement. The potential drawback of a testing program (i.e. a standardized testing program) is that there is a tendency that teachers will "teach to the test," and thereby stifle their own instructional creativity as professionals. Unfortunately, it is the rare teacher who will ignore an impending test and provide instruction that goes beyond the mere introduction or reinforcement of facts to be tested, being guided by the standards, with the confidence that this instruction will by itself result in good test results.

To make matters even more restrictive, the New York City Department of Education has mandated a uniform curriculum and materials for most schools to use in mathematics and literacy. Mindful of the need to provide guidance to a largely inexperienced teaching force (e.g. more that half of the math teachers in New York City have less than 5 years of teaching experience), and to bring uniformity to a system that has a significant number of students who transfer schools, this sort of mandate also stifles teacher creativity, in part because it is misinterpreted (or misused) by some inexperienced supervisors. Unfortunately these factors contribute to the problem of teacher retention, which research shows is largely a function of satisfaction in the workplace rather than salary (although this latter factor should by no means be minimized).

Our country operates on a merit system that requires an objective way to assess student achievement. Career decisions are made on the basis of student achievement, and colleges accept the highest achieving students first. Thus, an objective testing system is required. The trick in providing such a program is to make it so that teachers are not motivated to teach to the test, and that they are encouraged to use their creativity as professionals-each using their skills, knowledge, and personality to provide a rich learning environment that goes beyond the mere recollection of facts. To achieve this is no mean feat! If standards are written clearly-and, in particular, unambiguously-and test makers hold themselves to the nature of the standards and their intent, rather than trying to write creative test items, we have a real chance to realize a fair testing program that encourages teachers to use their special talents to maximize student achievement.

Such a transition is not easy. For one, it will require that all tests be administered at appropriate times-pedagogically speaking-and not when it is convenient for the administration. That is, the practice of giving standardized tests in March so that scoring and analysis can be conveniently done before the end of the school year must be modified. Given the state of technology today, we must be able to score and analyze test results more rapidly than the 3 months currently allotted for this. The goal of attaining pedagogically proper student assessment must be a combined effort by all parties involved: the state and local authorities, and the teachers and supervisors. Done right, we can once more become the educational model for the rest of the world.#

Alfred Posamentier is Dean of the School of Education at the City College of New York.



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