Dumbing down tests to satisfy NCLB

Federal annual reporting requirements force schools to dumb down tests, moving from essay exams to multiple-choice tests.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

The NY Times' Mike Winerip takes a look at the standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind and finds that the federal Education Dept. is more interested in yearly testing than in the quality of the tests or actually improving the disparity between whites and minorities.

Buckling under the pressures of administering tests and complying with NLCB reporting requirements, schools are opting for dumbed-down tests, according to a study by EducationSector.com.

While testing errors make headlines, [EducationSector codirector Thomas] Toch writes that even more worrisome is the pressure on states to dumb down their tests — to switch from challenging tests with essay questions to multiple choice to save money and meet federal reporting deadlines. He points out how much cheaper and faster machine-scored multiple-choice tests are to grade. Florida can do a million multiple-choice tests in a day, while correcting tests with essay questions can take weeks. It costs a test company 50 cents to $5 to score an essay, compared with pennies for each multiple-choice question.

The result? "Many of the tests that states are introducing under N.C.L.B. contain many questions that require students to merely recall and restate facts, rather than do more demanding tasks like applying or evaluating information." ...

But it's worse than that. Connecticut has one of the most challenging tests in the country and wants to keep it that way - but because the test is so expensive, they want to administer it every other year. No way, said the Ed. Dept.

In a May 3, 2005, letter, the federal education secretary, Margaret Spellings, said that while Connecticut's tests "are instructionally sound, they go beyond what was contemplated by N.C.L.B." Federal officials suggested that Connecticut switch to multiple-choice tests and eliminate writing tests to cut costs.

... [I]n an opinion article in The Hartford Courant last year, Ms. Spellings compared Connecticut officials to children who did not like tests and said that, as adults, they should "surely know better." She wrote that tests needed to be administered annually to highlight and shrink the achievement gap between white and black students.

You might not see how spending money on annual tests improves education, if the practice unnecessarily takes funds away from teaching.

In response, Gov. M. Jodi Rell wrote that testing twice as often would not close the gap and that the money would be better spent on preschool, technology and a longer school day.

Unlike Connecticut, Mississippi gave in and switched to multiple-choice tests. "Our budget has been very tight the last several years," said Kris Kaase, an associate state superintendent. Asked if he worried that the state was dumbing down its tests, he said, "It's a concern people have."


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