Flunking the Tests

Flunking the Tests
Sunday, February 15, 1998

THE HOUSE killed funding for President Clinton’s proposed national education tests this month by a 242-to-174 vote. While Education Secretary Richard Riley denounced the vote as a “partisan attack” on “voluntary national tests,” the issue isn’t as simple as test supporters make it out to be.

The plus of the tests is clear: Give every fourth grader a reading test and every eighth grader a math test, as the administration has proposed, and parents and teachers should know which children need remedial attention. Schools then should provide remedial education. Done right, a national test could prevent the social promotion of illiterate students who otherwise might be doomed to spend their school careers in a haze of half understanding.

But can parents trust federal educrats to do the test right?

I certainly wouldn’t trust federal edu-swamis with math. Consider the saga of National Science Foundation grant-monger Luther Williams. Williams wrote a letter to state schools chief Delaine Eastin warning her that California schools might lose federal funds because the state school board, to Eastin’s dismay, voted in favor of math standards that — horrors — mandate that third-graders memorize multiplication tables and fourth-graders master long division.

Williams was appalled at this rejection of new-new math. He derided the board for buying into a “wistful or nostalgic approach” that “has chronically and dismally failed.” He apparently failed to notice that California’s commitment to trendy math — write about math, but you don’t have to be right about math — put California fourth-graders so far behind in the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test that they scored behind every NAEP-taking state but Mississippi and Louisiana.

Another reason not to trust federal educrats with a math test is the debacle California educrats created in their 1994 California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) tests. Before state lawmakers put CLAS out of its misery, the the state department of ed directed scorers to give students with wrong answers, but nice essays, higher scores than students who gave correct answers, but didn’t embellish them with happy-face prose.

This there-is-no-wrong answer philosophy comes straight from the “deep, balanced mathematical learning” playbook, dear to Williams and other basics-hostile faddists.

House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman Bill Goodling, R-Pa, fears that national tests will create national curricula. If he’s right, and federal faddists dictate what goes in the tests, national tests ineluctably would dumb-down curricula nationwide. Local districts would be faced with the choice of teaching math-lite or living with low-test scores because their students aren’t adept at writing about how happy they are about math.

Reading is different. You would hope that federal swells could figure out a way to test reading ability without mucking that up too much. But good reading tests already exist. Some schools use them. California is about to launch its own tests and shouldn’t need a federal tests.

A national reading test, therefore, may be a waste of money that otherwise could be spent on needed teacher training for those teachers who were never schooled in sound phonics instruction.

“Why would you waste $100 million to tell half the kids they don’t read well?” Goodlng asked during a recent interview.

It wouldn’t be a waste if you knew the new test, unlike others, would be a good measure of student literacy. You’d do it if you trusted this test would prompt schools to teach failing students the basics. You would do it if you trusted D.C. educrats to recognize a strong curriculum. But do you?

You can read Debra J. Saunders on The Gate at www.sfgate.com.

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URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1998/02/15/ED68913.DTL

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