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Testing brings misery, expense
Scripps Howard News Service


March 21, 2006

WASHINGTON - In this test-happy era of education it was inevitable that the system would become overloaded and the inherent weaknesses of trying to measure everyone against the same standard would be exposed before all those frustrated parents and students who have been victimized emotionally and financially.

The proof, of course, emerged not only in the weakness of the major college entrance test itself with its vulnerability to short term improvement but suddenly with the fact that grading mistakes have resulted in thousands receiving lower scores and a handful higher than they should have. It's enough to make the most pious parent curse the double domes who thought up this nightmare of passage, particularly if hundreds of dollars have been laid out to make sure the children have the best chance of getting into the college of choice.

The exams dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act and other programs that have begun trying to measure even pre-school and kindergarten children are merely a way of making things easier on those charged with educating Americans. At the college level particularly it has to some degree always been a weeding out tool for admissions, one that is often a terrible predictor of the potential success of a student, especially when many of those who score well have undergone hour after hour of expensive outside preparation that those who score lower have been unable to afford.

Now the $2 billion-a-year testing services are stretched to the limit, straining the ability to prepare the examinations, deliver and grade them. The crisis has intensified since it was disclosed that the leading subcontractor for the Educational Testing Service had messed up on 4,600 exams. This comes on the heels of growing criticism over the accuracy of tests, their debilitating impact on children, their basic unfairness to minorities and their lack of relevance in modern teaching. As an answer to some of this criticism, ETS launched a new three-part SAT that includes an essay requirement for the first time.

States alone, according to news reports, are overseeing 45 million tests this year. With such a burden, quality control becomes a major problem made more difficult by the lack of experts available to conduct the monitoring. States are having trouble finding, training and retaining the experts necessary for proper oversight, leaving the administering bodies to conduct their own quality control. According to one report, some leading educators are seeking help from the federal government, suggesting that a federal agency be assigned the task of administering the programs.

Wonderful. Why not create another federal bureaucracy at who knows what cost to handle the testing oversight and control and to further stick its long nose into the lives of Americans? If one thinks the current expenditure by the industry - and this doesn't count the hundreds of millions spent in private preparatory courses for the higher level tests - is a lot of money, wait and see what a government agency would cost taxpayers, probably quadruple or more. Yet, if the testing mania persists, it may be the only solution to an increasingly out of hand situation.

Everyone who has an ounce of common sense understands that people don't respond to the same stimuli or learn at the same speed or take tests with the same skill or feel pressure the same. So it is impossible, particularly with the life and death examinations like the SATs or the ACTs, to draw up a test that can fairly and accurately measure everyone against the same yardstick. That idea basically sprang up as the postwar Baby Boomers began assaulting college admissions offices in unheard of numbers. The standardized tests relieved the schools of the burden of conducting individual exams and were supposed to compensate for the unevenness of quality in high schools throughout the nation.

But that concept has been faulted and the exams, with scores that are completely forgotten once they have been taken, have been abused and misused by colleges and universities and exploited by those who have made billions off of the misery of parents and students.

There has to be a better way. Unfortunately, few schools of higher education would go back to the costly days when they used simply the high school grades and their own individual tests to determine whether those grades were an accurate measurement. It's too bad.



Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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Ketchikan, Alaska