FairTest: The Gold Standard

K-12 Testing

By Professor Asa Hilliard III


Standardized mass-produced mental measurement, as we know it, is about one hundred years old. It is in a constant process of change, and it has been applied in many areas of human experience, including employment, mental health, and education. Arguably, education is the area of widest use, with “diagnostics” and the “measurement” of academic achievement being the most common applications.


My background and primary interest is in education, and most of my work in testing is for school uses. If we take as a given that the purpose of standardized tests in education should be to improve teaching and learning, as I believe we should, then it is important to understand that testing is connected to several things. It is connected to teaching, to learning, to school evaluation, to research, and to public policy.


Our evaluation of the benefits of testing must take all of these things into account at the same time. And there is the rub. Each of these areas tends to take place in relative isolation from the others. For example, researchers who wish to improve tests or psychologists using tests for diagnostics or classification are not required to understand teaching and learning. One of the reasons that testing in schools is so problematic is that many routines are being performed in each of these areas, from teaching to policy, without ever making clear how the testing benefits students and schools, which should be the ultimate point of accountability.


Assessment is a vital part of the teaching and learning process; standardized mass-produced testing is not necessarily so. In fact, by functioning typically as an independent enterprise, the potential for abuse can become great, especially when validity is poor and consequences are extreme, as with “high-stakes” testing. Because of the standardized mass-production requirement, testing falls to large corporations, largely unchecked by any regulations in the public interest.


Long before I became a board member of FairTest, I was engaged in many organizational and institutional struggles to improve assessment and prevent abuses in testing. Many of the battles have been waged in the courts, and others within professional organizations.


So, it was my good fortune during the 1970s to meet a true warrior, almost a “lone ranger,” John Weiss, who had the courage and the intellect to create access to centers of power and challenge powerful professional and commercial interests, in order to protect children from invalid and unfair tests. We found many opportunities to join together to engage in a variety of struggles on behalf of teachers and students. Twenty years ago, in 1985, he started FairTest.


What has been remarkable is that FairTest and its excellent board and staff, with visionary support from a handful of significant donors, have taken a very small organization and produced an enormous positive impact on policy and practice. Through publications, networking, uses of the media, uses of relationships with policy makers, and collaboration with key organizations, the FairTest voice has been heard and its influence has been felt.


I believe that it has been the twin powers of correctness in analyses and clarity in communication that has paved the way for FairTest as a major player. It remains a major player today for the same reasons. I know of no other equally effective voice.


One thing that has puzzled me for many years is that, in light of its enormous productivity, FairTest has not yet been able to attract the financial support that would enable it to sustain its efforts on behalf of children. Testing and assessment are central to every major effort that has been launched in “education reform.” Yet the testing and assessment efforts move invariably on conventional wisdom, not on solid science or pedagogy, and certainly not on their beneficial contributions to our children’s education.


Be it “truth-in-testing” for transparency, “cultural salience” in an increasingly plural population, “content validity” in a land of widely diversified curricula, special education assessment that is linked to beneficial instruction, teacher “competency” examinations where the tests are barely job related in a functional way, or tests for “failing schools” in the No Child Left Behind era, there must be some source for evaluation of the processes that can determine if the testing “emperor is wearing clothes.”


Perhaps somewhere in the future, researchers will review the files and other records of FairTest and conclude that its impact has been far greater than almost anyone can imagine, even those who have been involved in the organization.


But the story is not over. The organization’s twentieth anniversary is not a time to be looking backward. As my fellow FairTest board member Deborah Meier has said, FairTest is needed now more than ever.


In my half century of experience in education in numerous organizations and activities, the FairTest story is among a handful of “24 carat gold” efforts and results. I expect that great as FairTest’s contributions have been to date, they will accomplish yet more in the near future. FairTest needs and deserves your support.


• FairTest Board of Directors’ member Asa Hilliard III is the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Urban Education, Educational Policy Studies Department and Educational Psychology/ Special Education Department, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.