The New York Times Magazine
Sunday, April 21, 2002
James Traub's provocative article (April 7) raises legitimate questions and presents a strong challenge to those of us who have been critical of standardized testing. But it oversimplifies the issue by presenting it as driven mainly by the resentment of upper-middle-class suburbanites who oppose testing because they consider their own "standards" superior. Social status and class are not beside the point, but they are peripheral for those who honestly worry that testing distorts the curriculum and creates the wrong atmosphere in the classroom. On the other hand, "teaching to the test" would be a lot less objectionable if the tests themselves were compatible with an engaging curriculum and an atmosphere conducive to learning. Clearly, when testing supplants Shakespeare, it is not.
There's a big difference between teaching to the test and teaching to the learning standards. For example, one section of an eighth-grade English-language arts exam asks students to read two passages and answer questions and write an essay on them. Why is this incompatible with the teaching of, say, "Romeo and Juliet"? Couldn't teachers devise an activity that would use Shakespeare, perhaps in conjunction with other sources, and at the same time, teach these very practical reading and writing skills?
I expected to read another article deploring the injustice of requiring well-off children from Scarsdale to take standards-based tests. Instead, Traub showed how the real beneficiaries of these tests are the students of schools that have not performed well in the past. He argues implicitly that, despite the complaints of highly educated parents from Scarsdale and the ennui of teachers required to teach to the test, these new exams are benefiting children in less affluent communities. Bravo for thinking about the children trapped in nonperforming schools.
Traub has spent too much time with whining suburbanites. Why are they so opposed to standardized testing? Plumbers, electricians and even hairdressers have to pass standardized tests. So do real-estate brokers, lawyers, doctors, accountants and, yes, even teachers! Why should their children be any different?
Standardized testing in public education was introduced to set a minimum standard of performance after 30 years of "education reform" was shown to be a failure -- resulting in expensive schools run by educational bureaucrats who have miserably failed minority communities and inner-city students.
Mastering standardized tests is a skill that is necessary to obtain credentials in just about any field -- like it or not. Real education can easily accompany standardized tests.
I am always amazed at teachers who complain about "teaching the test," which is a legitimate measure of the successful communication of basic skills in our schools.
I want my school-age children to have access to the vital information and skills that are reflected in these state-mandated exams.
Joseph P. Lenahan
As a Scarsdale resident with three school-age children, I can tell you that the same women who are campaigning against standardized tests today will, in a few short years, have their children enrolled in expensive SAT prep classes and be lobbying Scarsdale High School to better prepare their children for standardized college-entrance exams.
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