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Jewish World Review April 19, 2000 / 14 Nissan, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Schools for scandal -- WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if schools administered tests, but students refused to take them? Several hundred students in Massachusetts decided to find out for themselves last week when they boycotted state-mandated exams for high school sophomores, exams students must eventually pass in order to graduate.

And these students are not the first in the nation to protest high-stakes tests. Students, parents, and even some teachers in Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin have recently rallied against tests now required in many states to graduate or move from one education level to the next.

The protesters claim the tests don't really measure what students know, and they say test preparation takes classroom time away from learning other, more important, material. As one Massachusetts student who refused to take his sophomore exams told a New York Times reporter: "Different people learn in different ways. Why should all students be assessed the same way?" This 16-year-old obviously thinks he knows more than the people devising education policy for the state, but is he right? Hardly.

Students usually know a great deal less than they think they do. In international assessments of mathematics and science, for example, American students routinely rank themselves as very knowledgeable, but score near the bottom of national rankings, nonetheless. And this problem may not entirely be the students' fault. Educators have been so concerned about building student self-esteem that they've forgotten the importance of teaching kids the very things that would give them some basis for satisfaction.

One education psychologist recently told me about his experience testing reading comprehension among a group of middle-class kids in Denver. In discussions, the students seemed very bright, and most came from affluent homes. What's more, they attended schools generally regarded as among the best in the area, yet their scores on standardized tests were below grade level. Puzzled, he began to explore why these seemingly smart kids were doing so poorly by giving them an extensive battery of exams.

After one session, a 12-year-old girl approached him. "I found that test really demeaning," she said. "The questions were insulting." Intrigued, the psychologist looked up the girl's exam paper. When asked to describe the main point in a story, to tell what happened in chronological order, and to describe a main character's motivation, the student appeared clueless.

Instead of answering those questions, she had given her own version of how to make the story "better." The girl may have shown creativity, but she did a lousy job demonstrating she could comprehend anything she read, including the instructions.

She's not alone. Millions of American students not only don't know how to find a topic sentence in a paragraph, for example, but don't think such skills are important in the first place. They also can't add, subtract, multiply or divide without using a calculator, and can't imagine why anyone would ever need to do so. Unfortunately, some of their teachers agree, so they haven't bothered to impart these skills to their students, either.

Students and teachers might have remained in blissful ignorance were it not for the tremendous push by education-reformers to enact tougher standards, and then, insist that schools measure whether students were meeting them or not. Twenty-six states now require students to pass some standardized test before conferring high school degrees, and several of these states are in the process of raising the bar for graduation. But what will happen if more protests like the one in Massachusetts occur?

So far, Massachusetts education authorities have been noticeably reticent to punish the students who refused to take their exams. In Wisconsin last year, parents who objected to statewide graduation tests succeeded in forcing the state to repeal the requirement. Some of the Massachusetts protesters compared their actions to the widespread civil disobedience that swept college campuses during the Vietnam War. The parallels are frightening. The late '60s ushered in a steep decline in education achievement. Much of that decline can be attributed to an ethos among the best and brightest of America's young people to "question authority," "deconstruct literature and history," and abandon moral and intellectual standards altogether.

We've only just begun to recover from this destructive influence. If educators aren't careful, protests like the Massachusetts test boycott could derail the recent progress. It's time adults acted responsibly, and let students know they have no choice in whether or not to take exams.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate