Schools Search for the Best Test

  • Share
  • Read Later

A teacher at Vail Middle School, goes over a proficiency test with his students

On the same day the Senate passed its version of President Bush's education proposal containing strict new provisions for statewide testing, Education Secretary Rod Paige lunched on rubbery chicken and chatted about urban education at an event hosted by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Asked the inevitable question about the growing backlash against high-stakes state exams, Paige paused for a moment and gave a curiously honest answer: "We know there are some bad tests out there." Then he launched into his spiel about the importance of assessments to ensure that no child is left behind.

With the legislation requiring annual reading and math testing for every child in grades three through eight, the issue of test quality has never been more crucial. Already students and teachers across the country are protesting dumbed-down school lessons and walking out of exams amid swirling headlines of massive scoring blunders by the testing firms that dominate the burgeoning K-12 testing market. While nearly every state already conducts standardized tests in one form or another, just 15 give annual exams that determine everything from grade promotion to teachers' salaries. The race is now on for the rest to roll out an estimated 260 new exams and snap up the $320 million in federal funds allotted by the Senate for assessment design. "We ought to be very concerned that we get tests of high quality and not just an increase in the quantity of exams," cautions Matthew Gandal, the vice president of Achieve, a group of governors and business leaders that pushes for high academic standards. "There are many ways to do this on the cheap."

Test-prep companies aren't waiting around to see that final product. Kaplan and Princeton Review — seasoned by years of providing SAT and ACT Prep — and upstart TestU are doing brisk business in the K-12 market producing everything from CD- ROMs and guidebooks meant to help students as young as third graders prepare for state exams to staff development seminars for teachers. This month Kaplan even published a book, "Crusade in the Classroom," which promises to tell parents exactly how President Bush's reforms will impact their children's lives. TestU has gone a step further, charging individual schools over $20,000 to give students access to individually tailored online test prep regimens. Scads of other new products are set to debut this fall. For many education advocates, this boom in coaching services is the most worrisome ripple effect of the Congressional legislation. "Schools are already getting test prep materials instead of library books," says Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. "There are some quality controls for state testing, but almost none for coaching." And nothing to say that, despite new federal funds reserved for private tutoring services for kids in failing schools, those coaching services will be available to rich and poor students alike.

It's hardly a surprise that folks would rush to cash in on the first significant education reform in decades. One can only hope that it will be parents and kids who profit the most — as opposed to the many firms now pledging to leave no child behind.