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Published: Wednesday, 11/1/2000

The test of a candidate

Educational testing, and what it indicates about how much our children are learning, has gotten significant attention during the presidential campaign, partly because it has coincided with an intense debate among educators and parents about the validity of testing and its proper place in this country's educational framework.

Now George W. Bush has to contend with the message of a new think-tank study that basically says that the system of proficiency testing in the Republican candidate's home state of Texas, the centerpiece of the Bush campaign, is overstating educational success.

Mr. Bush has claimed that, under his leadership, proficiency test scores of Texas children have soared and that minority students have fared especially well. As proof, his campaign cited a study released in July by the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan California think tank, showing that Texas pupils posted test gains at twice the rate of other states between 1990 and 1996.

But another study by the same think tank, out last week, casts doubt on what has been called “the Texas miracle,” saying that the state's testing system has grossly inflated the scores. “The soaring test scores in Texas do not reflect real improvement in students' ability to read and do math,” said Stephen Klein, the lead Rand researcher. “Texas is doing better than the rest of the country in some areas, but nowhere near the miracle. It's a myth.”

The Rand researchers reached their conclusion by comparing scores of fourth and eighth graders from 1992 to 1998 on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills and from a respected national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

What they found was that student gains on the Texas test were far greater than on the national test, suggesting that the increased state scores resulted from “teaching to the test” and a low standard for passing.

Rand says the results of the two studies aren't contradictory, just that Texas' testing program needs improvement. The Bush campaign reacted with fury, calling the latest study “shoddy” and declaring that its timing, two weeks before the election, was politically malicious.

What the fuss overlooks, however, is the more penetrating question of how Mr. Bush, who took office in 1995, can take credit for success of educational policies and a testing system that were put in place largely before he became governor in Texas. Real improvement in education doesn't happen overnight, or even in six years.

The furor also tends to obscure the need to design tests that accurately measure the degree to which students have learned an agreed-upon body of facts, preferably from a standard core curriculum that minimizes the effect on today's transient pupil population, especially among the poor.

Teaching “to the test” isn't necessarily bad, either, as long as students can demonstrate that they are able to take what they've learned and use it to think conceptually and critically.

That, after all, is the true measure of education.



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