THIS is the year U.S. schools went test-crazy.
every state but one had adopted standards for public school students in at least one subject and 41 states had adopted tests to measure student performance.
Promotion from one grade to another, and high school graduation itself, are now often test-determined. Test scores increasingly determine the ranking of schools, the resources available to them, and even control of the local curriculum.
Meanwhile, politicians vie with each other to position themselves as pro-education.
This almost obsessive interest in testing is driven by factors ranging from political ambition to a genuine desire for public schools that teach their students. But a big push comes from a much less publicized source -- the testing companies themselves.
Districts and states spend huge sums on testing and standards, money that goes to a few large companies, which also publish school texts. Dominating the field are three big publishers -- McGraw-Hill, Harcourt and Houghton-Mifflin.
Testing brought in an estimated $218.7 million for 1999 according to the Association of American Publishers. This is a small fraction of the $3.4 billion spent for all instructional materials, but the market for tests has been growing much faster than the market for textbooks -- and promises to become much larger.
But what do the tests actually measure? And even more important, do standardized tests really improve the quality of education?
Two Ohio mothers say the tests hurt students. "We used to have a wonderfully rich program in our schools," says Mary O'Brien, who has five kids in public schools. "Now it's all oriented to test-taking. They just rank and sort students -- they don't actually teach them much at all."
Ohio's ninth- and twelfth-grade students have their essays graded by Measurement, Inc. For $1.4 million a year, the company employs temporary workers at close to minimum wage with no teaching experience or education credentials who spend two minutes looking over each paper.
O'Brien and another parent, Teri Ziegler, started a movement three years ago to junk the Ohio Proficiency Test. "We purposely didn't give our group a name," she says. "We're just two moms against tests -- accidental activists."
But their conclusions are supported by an exhaustive study by Youngstown State University Professor Randy Hoover. He found that the poorer the family, the lower the score was likely to be. Schools in affluent neighborhoods do predictably well, and schools in poor, minority neighborhoods don't.
"Tests do measure social and economic conditions," admits Maureen DiMarco, former California Secretary of Education and now vice-president for education and government at Houghton-Mifflin. "Poor kids can learn just as well as higher income kids. They're just not getting the resources they need."
But ranking schools isn't necessarily going to lead to reallocating resources. Next year, promotion to fifth grade in Ohio will depend on passing the reading test. Students who don't pass will be concentrated in schools with the least resources, which will have even greater problems paying for teachers, classrooms and materials to help them catch up.
Furthermore, in many states, school districts that rank low on tests may lose funding, and see students and resources diverted to charter schools. Even pay raises for personnel are being tied to test rankings.
Harcourt participated in the most highly-touted example of the test-driven trend in education -- George W. Bush's "Texas education miracle."
Beginning in 1985, Harcourt helped develop the Texas Academic Assessment Skills test. Being the test developer can be very advantageous -- not only is test grading subcontracted to Harcourt, but the company marketed its textbooks to local districts as published by "the same company that helps to write the TAAS tests."
Consumed by testing fever Texas districts and schools organize TAAS camps, hold TAAS Olympics, and bend the curriculum towards test taking. Penalties for low performance can be brutal and allegations of test tampering have sparked investigations, led to the firings of teachers, and even the indictment of a school board.
Parents, especially in African-American and Latino communities, are rebelling. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund challenged the TAAS test, saying it discriminates against black and Hispanic children. In Cleveland, the NAACP charged the Ohio test with racial bias after not one student in five poor schools passed all sections. By now, most states have been sued over bias or problems with mistaken results. According to DiMarco, "it's hard to have a test that doesn't get sued." But, she notes the state or school district bears the legal costs, not the publisher.
Publishers already hold enormous economic power, and enjoy close relationships with state authorities who choose instructional materials and tests. With personnel moving back and forth between the state and private sector, an education-industrial complex is emerging.
"It's not a conspiracy," O'Brien says. "Corporations like IBM, Proctor and Gamble and Eastman Kodak want schools to educate students to their specifications. They want education centered on testing, and curriculum aligned to the tests."
David Bacon writes for Pacific News Service.
Copyright 2000 Oakland Tribune