High Stakes Are for Tomatoes
The statewide testing of students, with penalties for failure, has run into opposition from parents across the political spectrum.
1. By now it's hardly news that as education has risen to the top of the national agenda, a great wave — some would say a frenzy — of school reform has focused on two related objectives: more-stringent academic standards and increasingly rigorous accountability for both students and schools.
2. In state after state, legislatures, governors, and state boards, supported by business leaders, have imposed tougher requirements in math, English, science, and other fields, together with new tests by which the performance of both students and schools is to be judged. In some places students have already been denied diplomas or held back in grade if they failed these tests. In some states funding for individual schools and for teachers' and principals' salaries — and in some, such as Virginia, the accreditation of schools — will depend on how well students do on the tests. More than half the states now require tests for student promotion or graduation..
3. But a backlash has begun.
4. In Massachusetts this spring some 300 students, with the support of parents, teachers, and community activists, boycotted the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests ("Be a hero, take a zero") and demanded that if students had good enough records or showed other evidence of achievement, they be allowed to graduate even if they hadn't passed the test. Last November, after a strong majority of students failed the test, the state board of education lowered the score for passing to the level that the state designates as "needs improvement."
5. In Wisconsin last year the legislature, pressed by middle-class parents, refused to fund the exit examination that the state had approved just two years earlier. After an extended battle with Governor Tommy Thompson, who has been a national leader in the push for higher standards and greater accountability, a compromise was reached under which student achievement will be assessed on a variety of criteria. Failing the exam will not result in the automatic denial of a diploma.
6. In Virginia this spring parents, teachers, and school administrators opposed to the state's Standards of Learning assessments, established in 1998, inspired a flurry of bills in the legislature that called for revising the tests or their status as unavoidable hurdles for promotion and graduation. One bill would also have required that each new member of the state board of education “take the eighth grade Standards of Learning assessments in English, mathematics, science, and social sciences” and that "the results of such assessments...be publicly reported." None of the bills passed, but there's little doubt that if the system isn't revised and the state's high failure rates don't decrease by 2004, when the first Virginia seniors may be denied diplomas, the political pressure will intensify. Meanwhile, some parents are talking about Massachusetts-style boycotts.
7. In Ohio, where beginning next year fourth-graders who fail the Ohio Proficiency Tests will be held back, a growing coalition of parents and teachers — members of the Freedom in Education Alliance, Parents Against Unfair Proficiency Testing, and other groups — are circulating petitions to place a referendum on the ballot to amend or repeal the state's testing laws.
8. In New York a policy requiring that all students pass Regents examinations in a variety of subjects in order to graduate is increasingly the subject of controversy. Three former members of the State Board of Regents who helped to develop the policy issued a position paper earlier this year saying that they had never expected that all students would be held to a single standard, and calling for a re-examination of the policy. “The thinking [when I voted for the test requirement] was that everyone would take the exams,” one of them told The New York Times, “but you could get a diploma through other channels.”
9. The backlash, touching virtually every state that has instituted high-stakes testing, arises from a spectrum of complaints: that the focus on testing and obsessive test preparation, sometimes beginning in kindergarten, is killing innovative teaching and curricula and driving out good teachers; that (conversely) the standards on which the tests are based are too vague, or that students have not been taught the material on which the tests are based; that the tests are unfair to poor and minority students, or to others who lack test-taking skills; that the tests overstress young children, or that they are too long (in Massachusetts they can take thirteen to seventeen hours) or too tough or simply not good enough. In Massachusetts, according to students protesting MCAS, some students designated as needing improvement outscored half their peers on national standardized tests. “Testing season is upon us,” says Mickey VanDerwerker, a leader of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOL, “and a lot of kids are so nervous they're throwing up.” In Oakland, California, a protest organizer named Susan Harman is selling T-shirts proclaiming HIGH STAKES ARE FOR TOMATOES.
10. Some of the backlash comes from conservatives who a decade ago battled state-imposed programs that they regarded as anti-family exercises in political correctness. Although she has always thought of herself as a "bleeding-heart liberal," Mary O'Brien, a parent in Ohio who calls herself “an accidental activist” and is the leader of the statewide petition drive against the Ohio Proficiency Tests, complains that the state has no business trying to control local school curricula. In suburban Maryland this spring some parents kept their children out of school on test days, because they regard the Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program as a waste of time. They complain that it is used only to evaluate schools, not students — hereby objecting to almost precisely what parents in some other states are demanding. “It's more beneficial to have my child in his seat in the fifth grade practicing long division,” one Maryland parent told a Washington Post reporter.
11. But many more of the protesters-parents, teachers, and school administrators — are education liberals: progressive followers of John Dewey, who believe that children should be allowed to discover things for themselves and not be constrained by "drill-and-kill" rote learning. They worry that the tests are stifling students and teachers. Most come from suburbs with good, even excellent, schools. Instead of the tests they want open-ended exercises — portfolios of essays, art and science projects, and other “authentic assessments” — that in their view more genuinely measure what a student really knows and can do. They have gotten strong reinforcement from, among others, FairTest, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which opposes standardized testing; Senator Paul Wellstone, of Minnesota, who is sponsoring an anti-testing bill in Congress; Alfie Kohn, a prolific writer and polemicist who argues that the standards movement is a travesty that has "turned teachers into drill sergeants" in the traditionalist belief that "making people suffer always produces the best results"; and Gerald Bracey, an education researcher and a critic of the widespread belief that U.S. students are far behind their peers overseas, which has given impetus to the standards movement.
12. The anti-testing backlash is beginning to cohere as an integrated national effort. Earlier this year some 600 test critics attended a national conference on high-stakes testing, at Columbia University's Teachers College, to discuss effects, alternatives, and strategies: how to get the attention of legislators, what kinds of cases would be suited to civil-rights litigation, what assessments ensure accountability, how to achieve higher standards without high-stakes tests. Some on the left believe that the whole standards movement is a plot by conservatives to show up the public schools and thus set the stage for vouchers. All believe that poor and minority kids, who don’t test well, are the principal victims of the tests and the standards movement. They contend (correctly) that almost no testing experts and none of the major testing companies endorse the notion of using just one test to determine promotion or graduation or, for that matter, the salaries of teachers and principals. But so far legislators and governors haven't paid much attention.
13. Among the most articulate critics of the tests are the boycotting students, who complain about narrowing opportunities and shrinking curricula. The most exciting ninth-grade course in his school, says Will Greene, a high school sophomore in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is a science-and-technology class with a lot of hands-on experimentation. In the 1998-1999 school year, when students could take the class without worrying about MCAS, eighty students enrolled; this past year enrollment fell to thirty. Greene says that students feel the course will not help them pass the test, and failing the test next year could mean they don't get a diploma. "At least create a test," wrote Alison Maurer, an eighth-grader in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “that doesn't limit what students learn, something that shows what we have learned, not what we haven’t.”
14. The movement is a long way from achieving critical mass. The two most prominent lawsuits brought to date — one in Texas, challenging the test as racially biased; the other in Louisiana, arguing that students hadn't had a chance to learn the material — have failed. The boycotts are still small, and polls, by Public Agenda and other organizations, continue to show that 72 percent of Americans — and 79 percent of parents — support tougher academic standards and oppose social promotion “even if [the outcome is] that significantly more students would be held back.” Those numbers seem to reinforce the argument of Diane Ravitch, an education historian, an education official in the Bush Administration, and a strong supporter of standards, who has described the protesters as “crickets”— few in number, but making a disproportionate amount of noise. "There's tremendous support" for tests, Ravitch says, "among elected officials and in the business community." She may also be correct when she says that a great many of those who profess to oppose the high-stakes tests oppose all testing and all but the fuzziest standards. They are the same people, Ravitch argues, who in the end cheat kids by demanding too little and forever blaming children's inability to read or to do elementary math on the shortcomings of parents, neighborhoods, and the culture. Scrap the tests and we're back to the same neglect and indifference, particularly toward poor, marginal students, that we had before. Letting students who can't read, write, or do basic math graduate is doing no one a favor.
15. Yet even Ravitch is concerned about what she calls the “test obsession” and the backlash it could create if large numbers of students fail and the whole system unravels. The accountability structure in Virginia has been set up in such a way that even if the vast majority of students pass the tests, a large percentage of schools could fail the accompanying Standards of Accreditation. Under the SOA, any school in which more than 30 percent of students fail in 2007 will be subject to loss of accreditation. That, according to a study by the conservative Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, in Springfield, Virginia, is a formula that fosters public distrust of both the schools and the system. The study points out that because high-scoring students are concentrated in just a handful of districts, only 6.5 percent of Virginia schools met the SOA in 1999, when 35 percent of all Virginia students passed all the required SOL tests.
16. The Jefferson Institute study illustrates a wider set of problems underlying the new standards and tests. In an effort to look like the toughest guy on the block, some states have imposed standards that will be difficult if not impossible for many students and schools to meet. Members of the Virginia Board of Education are negotiating over allowing students to graduate without necessarily passing a standardized test. As noted, Massachusetts has already lowered the passing score on MCAS. A policy in Los Angeles to hold back all failing students has been modified. And merit-scholarship systems have been created in Michigan and California to keep top students from blowing off the test. The states that have had the least trouble with backlash are those, like Texas, that set standards low enough (and the Texas standards are far too low, in the view of some critics) that a large percentage of students can pass the tests.
17. It is, of course, in the public ambivalence about where the bar should be set that the larger uncertainty about the standards movement lies. Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve, an organization created in 1996 by governors and business executives to defend the standards movement (at that time mostly against conservative attacks), recognizes that despite the polls, "not enough has been done to bring the public along." In most cases the tests and standards were imposed from the top down, with little input either from teachers — often regarded as the problem rather than the solution — or from parents (who in Arizona and California are not even allowed to see old test questions). What's needed now, Schwartz says, is to bolster public understanding and “capacity building,” including professional development for teachers, to make the whole system work. “The good news,” he told a reporter from Education Week in April, is that “states are not simply stopping with raising the bar, and shouting at kids and teachers to jump higher, but are moving to address the support question.”
18. The question, as Schwartz knows, is whether resources — and particularly the quality of teaching in inner cities — will catch up with the demands on students. Since April, Schwartz has also acknowledged that as the day of reckoning approaches for millions of American students, the backlash will spread and intensify. "It's easy to assent in the abstract," he told me recently. “When it's my kid, it's something different." In the mid-1990s Delaware threw out a testing program because, in the words of Achieve, the legislature "had been unprepared for high rates of student failure.”
19. In his state of education speech in February the U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, a strong advocate of accountability and standards, seemed to recognize the danger. “Setting high expectations,” he said, “does not mean setting them so high that they are unreachable except for only a few…If all of our efforts to raise standards get reduced to one test, we've gotten it wrong. If we force our teachers to teach only to the test, we will lose their creativity…If we are so consumed with making sure students pass a multiple-choice test that we throw out the arts and civics then we will be going backwards instead of forward.”
20. And yet the line between the political drive to be tough and indifference to standards in the name of creativity and diversity sometimes seems hard to draw. Diane Ravitch says that a person much missed in this debate is the late Albert Shanker, a longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, who was relentless in his push for high standards for both students and teachers. But Shanker also pointed out that if only one standard for graduation exists, it will necessarily be low, because the political system can't support a high rate of failure. Shanker suggested two criteria: a basic competency level required of everyone, combined with honors diplomas, by whatever name, for students who do better and achieve more. The issue of the tradeoff between minimum competency and what is sometimes called "world-class standards" is rarely raised in any explicit manner, but it has bedeviled this debate since the beginning. As the standards requirements begin to take effect, and as more parents face the possibility that their children will not graduate, pressure to lower the bar or eliminate it entirely will almost certainly increase. Conversely, as more people come to understand that the "Texas miracle" and other celebrated successes are based on embarrassingly low benchmarks, those, too, will come under attack. The most logical outcome would be the Shanker solution. But in education politics, where ideology often reigns, logic is not always easy to come by.
1 . 随着教育被提到国家重要的议事日程上，学校改革的浪潮(有些人称之为狂潮)，集中在两个相关的目标上：学术标准更加严格以及对学生和学校应负的责任日渐苛求，就目前而言，这一点已算不上什么新闻了。
2.各州的立法机构、州长和教育委员会在商界要人的支持下，对数学、英语、科学和其它课程提出更苛刻的要求，并辅之以新型的考试，依据考试成绩对学生和学校作出评价。好些地方已经有学生考试不及格而没拿到毕业证或被迫留级的情况。在一些州，每个学校的资金、老师和校长薪金 —— 并且在有些州，诸如弗吉尼亚州，学校的资格认证 —— 都取决于学生的考试情况。现在已有超过半数的州要求用考试成绩决定学生的升级和毕业。
7.在俄亥俄州，从下年度开始四年级学生要是俄亥俄州水平考试不及格，就得留级。越来越多的家长和教师 —— 他们是教育自由联盟、反 对不公平水平考试家长协会和其他一些团体的成员—— 联合起来，到处散发请愿书，要求就修改或废止州的考试法进行全民公决。
11. 但是更多的抗议者——包括家长、老师和学校行政管理人员——崇信教育自由主义，推崇教育家约翰·杜威, 他们认为应该让孩子们自己去发现事物, 而不该用机械操练, 死记硬背的方式来桎梏他们。他们担心考试正在扼杀学生和老师的创造性。这些学生和老师大部分来自郊区，那儿有良好甚至优秀的学校。他们要求，不用考试，而是用开放式的练习方式教育孩子 —— 如写作、艺术和科学项目以及其他“真实的评估”方法 —— 在他们看来，这些方式能够更真实地衡量学生真正所学的知识和技能。这些人已得到来自其他各方面的强有力支持, 如马萨诸塞州卡布里奇市旨在反对标准化考试而设立的“公平测试”; 明尼苏达州参议员保罗· 威尔斯顿正在国会中支持通过一个反考试的议案; 多产作家和辩论家阿尔菲·康认为，标准化考试是扭曲而谬误的，它“把教师变成了训练官”，他们死报传统观念，以为“吃得苦中苦，方为人上人”;杰拉尔德·布雷希，是一名教育研究员，他对当前广为流行的看法提出了批评，这种观点认为美国学生的能力远逊于他国同龄学生，标准化运动实在是不得已而为之的。
17.当然，公众对标准化考试运动的很大程度上的犹疑不决就在于公众对这条标准线应当如何设定存有矛盾的心理。“功业”组织的主席罗伯特•B•舒尔茨认识到尽管民意调查结果如此，但“我们在团结公众方面做得还不够。”(“功业”这个组织成立于1996年，是由州长们和工商管理人员组建的旨在于维护标准化考试运动的组织，在当时主要是用来对付保守派的攻击。)大多数的情况是，考试及其标准是自上而下执行的，根本没有征求教师(他们常常被认为是只能带来问题而提不出解决方案)和家长(在亚利桑那和加州家长甚至不被允许看往年的考题)的意见。舒尔茨认为，现在亟待解决的是增强公众对标准化考试的理解和加大“能力建设”，包括提高教师的专业能力，以致使整个系统有效运作。“可喜的是，”他在四月对《教育周刊》的一个记者说：“州政府并不是一味地提高标准，对着教师及学生吼叫，让他们往做得更好，而是在着手解决人心向背这一问题。” 18.正如舒尔茨所见，这个问题就在于教学资源，尤其是老城区的教学质量，能否达到对学生的要求这一水平线。自四月份以来，舒尔茨也承认，随着针对数百万美国学生判决式的测试一天天临近，这种对抗性行为将会更加广泛、更加激烈。“在理论上认同它并不难 ”，他最近告诉我说，“可是这搁到自己孩子身上，又是另一回事了”。在二十世纪九十年代中期，特拉华州拒绝实行考试计划，用 “功业”组织的话来说就是因为立法会“没有想到会有这么多学生不及格。”
19. 美国教育部部长理查德·瑞利，系责任制与标准化运动的坚定支持者，他于二月份就教育状况问题的演说中似乎意识到这种危机。他说：“高期望值的设定并不意味着将标准设得那样高不可攀，结果除了少数的学生外无人可以通过 —— 如果我们为提高标准所付出的全部努力结果只沦落为单一考试的话，那我们就错了。如果我们逼着老师只为考试而教学的话，那么他们的创造性将会被泯灭。如果我们将精力过多地消耗在确保学生通过多项选择考试，甚至放弃艺术和公民学的教育的话，那么我们的社会将会倒退而不是进步。”
20.然而，有时似乎很难在求严求高的政治努力和借创造性、多样性为名而漠视标准化考试的态度之间划清界线。黛安·拉维契说，在这场争论中，最值得怀念的人是已故的阿尔伯特·山克 —— 美国教师联盟的长任主席。他曾毫不留情的推行对老师、学生的高标准要求。但山克也指出，如果只存在一个毕业标准，那它必须要求低一点，因为现行政治体制不允许不及格率太高。山克提出两种评判标准：一种是针对每个学生的基本能力水平，另一种是给做得更好、学习更优秀的学生颁发荣誉证书，或别的什么证书。在最低能力标准和时常被称为“世界级标准”之间协调权衡的问题很少被以明确的方式提出来，然而这个问题从一开始就困扰着这场辩论。当标准化考试标准开始实施，愈来愈多的家长面对他们的孩子可能会毕不了业时, 要求降低标准或完全取消该标准的压力无疑会加剧。而另一方面，当更多的人开始了解到“德克萨斯奇迹”和其他闻名的成就只不过是建立在低得令人尴尬的分数线上时,那么这些标准同样将遭到攻击。最明智合理的方案也许就是山克的解决办法。但在常由思想意识支配的教育政治中，合乎逻辑的东西并不都是很容易做到的。