ERIC Identifier: ED338703
Publication Date: 1991-12-00
Author: Davey, Lynn - Neill, Monty
Clearinghouse on Tests Measurement and Evaluation Washington DC.
The Case against a National Test. ERIC/TM Digest.
Prepared by Lynn Davey and Monty Neill based on testimony presented by Monty
Neill to the House Subcommittee on Select Education, this digest argues that
current efforts to establish a national test to measure progress toward the
nation's educational goals will inhibit, not advance, educational reform.
U.S. policymakers and the public have been deluged with proposals for
national testing. Several proposals called for single tests, primarily
multiple-choice, in different subject areas in a number of grades. Among these
were Educate America and a plan mentioned in "America 2000" to develop
individualized tests based on National Assessment of Educational Progress test
However, the National Education Goals Panel and the National Council on
Educational Standards and Testing have both endorsed development of a national
examination system based on performance assessments. This idea was initially
proposed by the Learning Research Development Center and the National Center on
Education and the Economy, which created the New Standards Project. They hope to
design model exams that states and districts can use to develop their own
specific curricula and tests.
Dozens of national and local education, civil rights and advocacy
organizations, including those associated with the FairTest-initiated Campaign
for Genuine Accountability in Education, have consistently opposed any type of
national exams at this time. They have argued that all national exam proposals
put the cart of testing before the horse of educational reform and that the
harmful effects of this effort will fall most heavily on low-income and
All national testing proposals are based on the
fallacy that measurement by itself will induce positive change in education.
Proponents claim that other nations, whose students score higher on some
international exams, have national testing programs. In fact, no significant
economic competitor of the U.S. has a single national exam or exam system of the
sort proposed for the U.S., and none of them uses tests for accountability
purposes. If these nations out-perform the U.S., a point open to debate, it is
not because of national tests. These nations do, however, have far smaller
percentages of children living in poverty.
The multiple-choice testing option is especially dangerous.
Evidence from the standardized exam driven school improvement efforts of the
1980's demonstrates conclusively that this type of testing does not, in fact,
improve education. (See the papers from the American Educational Reform
Association special conference on national testing, Phi Delta Kappan, November
1991.) All multiple-choice/short-answer tests are severely limited. They cannot
directly assess higher order thinking, problem solving abilities, creativity, or
As an accountability tool, a national multiple-choice test would lead to
drilling for the least important skills and perpetuate damaging models of
instruction and educational excellence. Learning how to use knowledge in
academia, employment and society would be relegated to an even smaller part of
the curriculum. Necessary school reform would be stymied.
A national standardized, multiple-choice exam would likely perpetuate sorting
students by class and race. Under the guise of tracking for "ability," students
are often segregated by race and class on the basis of test scores. This is
partly because the tests make cultural assumptions through the language used and
the experiences the tests treat as normative, assumptions that work to the
detriment of minority-group and low-income children. While there are real
differences in the educational opportunities of poor and rich students,
standardized tests exaggerate these differences by their biases and confuse lack
of ability with lack of exposure.
Performance assessment attempts to assess what students know and are able to
They are based on observing, documenting, and analyzing student work.
Projects and products from in and out of the classroom, research, writings, and
exhibitions are among the materials used in such assessments. Portfolios are
tools for selecting from, analyzing, and summarizing these types of student work
over time. Performance assessments can also be examinations developed and
administered from outside the classroom. Examples include open-ended complex
problems that require the student to explain how the problem was solved, science
fair exhibitions, performances in applied arts, and Scout Merit Badges.
Like multiple-choice tests, however, performance assessments should not be
transformed into a national examination system, at least not at this time.
There are many issues that must be resolved before it is reasonable to
consider a national system:
Lack of consensus on educational practices and outcomes. There is no widely
accepted set of skills and attributes that are expected as outcomes of
education. This must be resolved before national exams would make any sense.
Subject area groups suggest it could be a decade before complex debates over
curricular content and instructional methods are resolved, if ever.
None of the proposals adequately address issues of equity. These exams must
not become gatekeepers that perpetuate sorting students by race and class under
the guise of "ability". Bias issues in performance assessments have not been
Testing by itself will not improve education. Assessment reform must be only
part of an integrated process of systemic change which addresses issues of
curriculum, instructional practices, staff development, school structure and
governance, textbooks, and schools of education. Equitable access to educational
resources and other necessary prerequisites of student learning also should
precede national exams.
Tests tell only part of the story. Any proposal must be part of an overall
educational information system. Having outcome information is not useful unless
we also have adequate information on the educational context (type of community,
socioeconomic status of students, school climate), resources (expenditure per
student, teaching staff, building quality, textbooks and materials), programs
and processes (class size, curriculum, instructional methods, grouping), and
other outcomes (graduation rates, employment, further education, "customer
satisfaction"). All this information must be organized into an information
system designed to ensure continuous school improvement.
The technology and benefits of comparing scores on different assessments from
around the nation (calibration) is untried. Because regional exams will be based
on national standards and model exams, supporters of the exam system claim each
student's scores could be compared with those of all other students through a
system of "calibration." We do not know if such calibration is possible, how
expensive it would be, or whether the benefits will be worth the expense. Money
would be better spent to support comprehensive educational reform and
disseminating useful information.
We do not know who will be in charge or the consequences of one national body
setting standards and approving exams. Will a national curriculum result? Will
the system be sufficiently flexible to allow all students to develop and
demonstrate their capabilities? How will those who think standards should change
be able to influence a national body?
Instead of national testing, we suggest the
following steps to improve education and assessment:
The federal government should assist states and districts with the
development of performance assessments; teacher education and staff development;
and the development and dissemination of model curricula, standards, and
assessments. All these should be integrated into comprehensive reform
Re-examine cases in which the federal government requires multiple-choice
testing, particularly for the Chapter I program.
Consider assessment not in isolation but as part of a comprehensive
educational information system.
Finally, require that any assessment system be evaluated on the basis of
extensive experience at the state and district level. Equity issues, in
particular, must be adequately resolved before any decision is made on a
national examination system.
U.S. students need school reform, not more
testing. More test scores will not magically produce educational improvement.
Resources should be spent on helping teachers teach and students learn, not on
further sorting and ranking students, schools and states.
New assessments should be used to help student learning, guide educational
improvement, and enhance equity. National testing will short-circuit these
Medina, N. and D.M. Neill (1990) Fallout from
the Testing Explosion Cambridge, MA FairTest.
Oversight hearings on Educational Assessment. Hearings before the
Subcommittee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, 102nd Congress,
Serial No. 102-8. (ERIC TM 017 236)
Phi Delta Kappan, November 1991, special section on national testing.
Perrone, V., Ed (1991) Expanding Student Assessment: Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
FairTest, 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139 is an education reform and civil
rights group monitoring testing activities.