Forum Explores Test Alternatives

K-12 Testing

At a packed Columbia University Teachers College forum in mid-April, school leaders from Nebraska and Rhode Island presented their states' alternatives to the dominant test-based accountability structures.


Nebraska Superintendent Doug Christensen explained why and how Nebraska relies on locally developed assessment systems for accountability (Examiner, Spring 2002). Christensen emphasized the importance of formative assessments that enable teachers to be more effective. "Which would you rather use to get to know a child," he asked, "a snapshot or a videotape?" For school improvement to work, teachers need to be at the center, with everyone else, from principals to state boards to Congress and the president, organized to support locally directed changes.


"What's wrong with NCLB and state high-stakes tests is that the incentive to look good is more powerful than the incentive to be good," Christensen added.


Rhode Island's Peter McWalters agreed that the point of assessment should be to give teachers information they can use. Tests, he said, should provide information useful for change, as they are in Rhode Island (Examiner, Winter-Spring 2003), and not themselves be high stakes.


James Lytle, superintendent of Trenton, NJ, schools, explained that NCLB will not succeed in improving education because it is a top-down and one-size-fits-all approach. Lasting and deep positive change must be based on listening and collaborating among educators and others.


Respondent Gerry House, former superintendent of Memphis, TN, stated, "A high-stakes, standardized testing program….will not provide sufficient intrinsic or extrinsic motivation or provide sufficient information to close the achievement gap." High-stakes tests also drive out students who are making progress but still fail the exams.


FairTest board member Deborah Meier closed the presentations by observing, "We are the only people in America - teachers - who think it is our job to close gaps," and contrasting that with the widening gap between rich and poor on all other indicators.


"If you increase all the other gaps, in 5-1/2 hours a day, no matter what kind of genius I might be, I cannot eliminate them all." Meier was the first classroom educator to win a MacArthur "genius" award for her work as founding principal of Central Park East Secondary School. At that school, Meier explained, "we changed kids' lives, but not their test scores."


During the ensuing discussion, Christensen said, "It is what people do to not do NCLB that will decide the fate of NCLB." Change will come, so, "Be ready to lead when it happens."


- see also "State officials lead resistance to 'No Child Left Behind,'