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‘Put Simply, Our Children Do Not Yet Measure Up’

Baker is co-director and Niemi is assistant director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA, a federally funded think tank that helps develop tests and analyze student performance

It’s human nature to look at unhappy circumstances and try to understand them. But there is a fine line between finding explanations and making excuses.

Consider the results unfolding from the statewide testing program. Put simply, our children do not yet measure up when compared to a national sample of students on the Stanford 9 achievement test. We can offer explanations for this, some plausible, some less so.

It is true, for instance, that the test isn’t tightly related to recently adopted state standards. Its content may be even more tenuously connected to day-to-day teaching practices. And the test relies exclusively on a multiple-choice format. For these reasons, Los Angeles, Long Beach and other large-city school districts are developing more complex performance-based measures that are more closely linked to local standards, curriculum blueprints and good teaching practices. Findings from these challenging tests will ultimately augment statewide test results.

It is also true that performance on the Stanford 9 test is interpreted by comparing Los Angeles students to a national sample, one that is different from the student population of Los Angeles. The national norm group is composed of far fewer students who are poor, minority, immigrant or speak a first language other than English. Using this comparison group will disadvantage Los Angeles and many other urban communities. These districts will look worse than they might if they were compared to a group that more closely reflects their own student populations.

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These explanations for poor results are defensible, but they should not be used as excuses to exempt us from taking action. We think that results from the state test should be accepted as one depiction of student status, but not the only one. We need information from other sources, including more complex performance assessments. But now that we have some baseline results, we need to set real goals for progress, goals addressing what students, schools and parents will do. Our expectations cannot be allowed to drop. Our children need to learn to achieve at the same level as the best students anywhere.

It is tempting to cast our expectations in terms of improved test scores only. This is a terrible mistake, equivalent to heating the thermometer instead of heating the room. A test score is just an indicator, a signal about what students know in important areas. Rather than trying to inflate scores through extensive test-taking practice and rehearsal on items used on the test, we need to concentrate attention and teaching expertise on the skills and knowledge that students ought to be learning. We should emphasize reading, mathematics and science competencies in students’ homework and classroom assignments. If parents and teachers need help in these areas, they should get it. If we continue to improve the information and support provided to parents, teachers and students, and if we continue to hold high expectations for teaching and learning, then we can reasonably expect to see our students performing at a higher level next year, and at an even higher level the year after that.


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