Saturday, December 28, 2002

NYTimes -- More Schools Rely on Tests, but Study Raises Doubts

Rigorous testing that decides whether students graduate, teachers win bonuses and schools are shuttered, an approach already in place in more than half the nation, does little to improve achievement and may actually worsen academic performance and dropout rates, according to the largest study ever on the issue.

After adopting such exams, twice as many states slipped against the national average on the SAT and the ACT as gained on it. The same held true for elementary-school math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam overseen by the United States Department of Education.

Trends on Advanced Placement tests were also worse than the national average in 57 percent of those states, while movement in elementary-school reading scores was evenly split — better than the national average in half the states, worse in the other half. The only category in which most of the states gained ground was middle-school math, with 63 percent of them bettering the national trend.

"Teachers are focusing so intently on the high-stakes tests that they are neglecting other things that are ultimately more important," said Audrey Amrein, the study's lead author, who says she supported high-stakes tests before conducting her research. "In theory, high-stakes tests should work, because they advance the notions of high standards and accountability. But students are being trained so narrowly because of it, they are having a hard time branching out and understanding general problem-solving."

Perhaps most controversial, the study found that once states tie standardized tests to graduation, fewer students tend to get diplomas. After adopting such mandatory exit exams, twice as many states had a graduation rate that fell faster than the national average as those with a rate that fell slower. Not surprisingly, then, dropout rates worsened in 62 percent of the states, relative to the national average, while enrollment of young people in programs offering equivalency diplomas climbed.

The reason for this is not solely that struggling students grow frustrated and ultimately quit, the study concluded. In an echo of the findings of other researchers, the authors asserted that administrators, held responsible for raising tests scores at a school or in an entire district, occasionally pressure failing students to drop out.

This is obvious if you have been involved in school districts.

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