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Jewish World Review Dec. 20,1999 /11 Teves, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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The tests made me do it! -- IF YOU THINK the low test scores of students in our public schools are bad, and that the recently uncovered scandal of dozens of teachers and principals in New York City helping students to cheat on these tests are worse, then tighten your seat belt because the worst is yet to come. Excuses are now being made for the cheaters by the New York Times.

"Neither the teachers nor their teachers are equipped to face the new and harsher consequences of educational failure, which for students means no social promotion or graduation from high school," according to an editorial in that august publication. "For principals, persistent failure could mean being ousted from the schools."

Welcome to the world of accountability, where harsh consequences follow failure! What every store owner, shoeshine boy, or manager of a McDonald's faces every day is now seen as some terrible thing for the public schools to have to cope with.

What should be done instead of having the school system "driven and judged by test scores" is to "give the students and teachers the resources needed to meet new academic goals." In other words, pour ever more money down the bottomless pit, regardless of whether or not it produces any better results.

You would never dream from reading the Times editorial that bigger and bigger spending has been tried for decades, without the slightest indication that this produces better educational results. As a 1990 Brookings Institution study concluded: "When other relevant factors are taken into account, economic resources are unrelated to student achievement."

This was only one of many studies to reach the same conclusion. But apparently the facts have not yet trickled down to the editorial offices of the New York Times. Actually, the skyrocketing of educational expenditures in the 1960s was accompanied by declining test scores every single year until the early 1980s.

Although there have been some mild improvements since then, SAT scores have never gotten back to where they were in 1963. The way our public schools are set up, money only buys more expensive incompetents, whether among the students or the teachers.

An op-ed piece in the same December 9th issue of the New York Times elaborates on the familiar educational establishment theme that testing is the villain. Protesting against "heavy-handed demands for 'tougher standards'," Alfie Kohn says that they "not only invite cheating but also cheat children out of opportunities for meaningful learning."

In other words, the test made me do it! And whether or not "meaningful learning" has taken place must be based on whether the education establishment says so, not whether test results show it.

There are of course good tests and bad tests, but all tests can be improved if that is what people are worried about. But bad tests are a red herring.

"Educators" do not want to be held accountable and to pay the consequences of failing to do their job. That is what it is all about and that is what it has always been about.

Since there is more than enough blame to go around, some of that blame must fall on those parents who go along with the education establishment's propaganda that things are fine and we just need more money. Parents who themselves received dumbed-down education may be slow to recognize the need for solid education with real standards and real consequences for failing to meet them.

Inflated grades and bumper stickers that say, "My child was student of the month at Jordan Middle School" may be enough to keep some parents fat, dumb and happy. But smiley public relations will not turn out educated Americans. Neither will excuses for bad education or for cheating to escape responsibility for it.

Although testing students is depicted as something "new" and "harsh," New York state has had Regents exams for more than half a century, and generation after generation of students took them. Of course, it was a lot easier to pass these exams back when schools taught basic subjects like English, math and history, instead of becoming little propaganda centers for the latest fads in environmentalist hysteria, New Age attitudes, and politically correct views on everything from sex to race.

Real standards are going to make it harder to be a teacher, a student or a parent. But who says that everything worthwhile has to be easy, much less fun?

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate