ERIC Identifier: ED410239
Publication Date: 1992-04-00
Author: Davey, Lynn
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Tests
Measurement and Evaluation Washington DC.
The Case for a National Testing System. ERIC Digest.
In the last decade, our dissatisfaction with the quality of American
education has grown. Perhaps A Nation at Risk (1983) most clearly voiced that
dissatisfaction. Experts have proposed an array of remedies, many focused on
making schools accountable for what students learn. If we specify the goals we
want to attain and hold teachers and administrators responsible, we've assumed,
students would learn more.
Unfortunately, the tests used to fuel the fires of accountability have shed a
lot of heat but little light. The measures--ranging from the Scholastic Aptitude
Test to the National Assessment of Educational Progress to standardized
norm-referenced tests used in state and local assessments--have proved
inadequate. They have failed to provide the information we need about students
and specific curricular objectives. So far, they have not helped us improve our
As currently formulated, these tests often
assess only a narrow range of the curriculum;
focus on aptitude, not specific curriculum objectives; and
yield results that apply only to the state or nation, not the individual
pupil and school.
After the years of bringing us good news during an era of declining
performance, today these tests have little credibility. A new national
assessment system, however, could lay a solid foundation for improving schools.
Such a system would allow us to monitor schools' and teachers' effectiveness,
and students' progress toward national educational goals. While serving
accountability efforts, the system would also strengthen and expand students'
A sound national assessment system would
allow valid comparisons between schools, districts, and states;
provide sound data on achievement, not just aptitude
prod schools to focus on important, performance-based outcomes; and
yield results for every important level of the education system, from
individual children to the nation as a whole.
A carefully designed and implemented national examination system can fulfill
without requiring a national curriculum, and
while still increasing incentives for all students to achieve.
WE NEED A BETTER SYSTEM FOR COMPARING SCHOOLS, DISTRICTS, AND STATES
Because the United States has no national system of achievement
testing, we cannot validly compare students' performance across the nation.
Parents, educators, and policy makers who want to know whether a child is
learning as much as others, or whether a school or district is effective, must
base their analysis on limited data of dubious quality.
The scores reported for many widely used achievement tests are, in fact, more
likely to mislead parents and the public than to enlighten them. Instead of
showing how students perform compared with real standards, these exams rate test
takers against samples of students who took the tests before--sometimes many
years before. And so, most states are reporting that their students, like the
children in Garrison Keillor's mythic Lake Wobegon, perform above average
We need to know how our children and schools are doing. Nothing we have so
far, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, permits valid
comparisons. To create effective accountability systems, we first need useful
and reliable data on student outcomes. Nationwide tests for all students could
give parents, teachers, and policy makers that data.
WE NEED SOUND DATA ON ACHIEVEMENT, NOT JUST APTITUDE
SAT and ACT are the closest things we have to a national achievement test. The
SAT, in particular, affects many college-bound students. However, the students
who take the test represent a subset of all high school graduates, and the SAT
focuses on aptitude, not achievement. It does not assess what students have
learned about subjects like science, history, or geography.
Thus, our most common, high-stakes tests are estranged from the curriculum
and fail to reinforce the notion that hard work in school matters. In fact,
students who study hard and learn a lot receive few concrete rewards. Little
discomfort befalls students who just slide by. By contrast, the achievement
tests given in other countries convey the idea that mastering school subjects is
important. Those exams make students accountable for what they have learned.
A NATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT TEST WILL FORCE SCHOOLS TO FOCUS ON IMPORTANT, PERFORMANCE-BASED OUTCOMES
Some proposals for a national
achievement test include writing samples. Others would require students to give
practical demonstrations in subjects like music and the natural sciences. Most
advocates of national examinations stress the value of performance-based
assessments. They argue that students should demonstrate whether they can
organize their thoughts, analyze information, and formulate arguments. In short,
tests need to determine whether students can apply the knowledge they have
Scoring performance-based exams is more complicated than scoring
multiple-choice exams. But the experience of other countries like Germany,
England, and Japan shows that this type of exam works. With proper training and
monitoring, different people can learn to assess performance-based exams
according to a common standard.
A NATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT TEST DOES NOT HAVE TO MEAN A NATIONAL CURRICULUM
Some countries with national exams--France and Japan, for
instance--have strict national curriculums. Germany, like the United States,
considers education mainly the responsibility of the individual states. Each
state follows its own curriculum; though all states follow the same format for
the German exam, each decides on the specific questions it will ask.
Achievement tests work best when they explicitly relate to curriculums. The
German experience shows that even when curriculum and assessment fall under
local authority, a national examination system can still work.
If we hold all U.S. schools to a shared standard, however, we will need to
coordinate our efforts. Just as a national system of achievement testing need
not entail a national curriculum, it need not entail a single test for everyone.
We can construct multiple tests for different subjects.
A NATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT TEST COULD INCREASE INCENTIVES FOR ALL STUDENTS
Unlike the SAT, the ACT, and the national exams of most other
countries, the achievement tests now being proposed in the United States are
aimed at all students. If employers started asking for transcripts and stressing
academic achievement when hiring, scores on such tests could become a valuable
credential for students entering college as well as the workplace. The labor
market, along with the school, needs to reward academic achievement. The high
expectations that achievement tests raise and the incentives they provide should
be part of all students' education, regardless of their aspirations.
A testing system needs to respond to differences in people's educational and
career aspirations, in their intellectual acuity and commitment, and in their
cultural values and religious beliefs. But we also need to focus on one main
goal: to see the skills and knowledge of the average student emerging from the
average school clearly rise.
Achievement tests should measure what we think
is most important for students to learn. However, our curriculum objectives,
pedagogy, and testing programs have seldom been aligned.
New tests must provide accurate, reliable information:
Tests are our primary source of information about educational achievement;
To improve American education today, we need to hold schools accountable for
To hold schools accountable, we need reliable information about student
outcomes. Any proposed national examination must be part of a broader plan, a
plan that also integrates objectives, standards, teaching, assessment, and
accountability for results.
Bishop, John H. (1989). Why the apathy in
American high schools? Educational Researcher.
Cannell, John Jacob. (1987). Nationally normed educational achievement
testing in America's public schools: How all fifty states are above the national
average. Daniels, WV: Friends for Education.
Finn, Chester, Jr. (1991). We must take charge: Our schools and our future.
New York: Free Press.
U.S. Department of Education (1983). A Nation at Risk. Washington, DC: