If a Tennessee student takes a Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test every year from 2nd grade to 8th grade, how many statewide standardized tests will that student take before he/she enters high school?
B. Not enough
C. Too many
D. It depends on whom you ask
School started this week in Knox County. Although it's only the middle of August and we're still in the midst of a heat wave, classrooms are already clattering with the sound of dropped notebooks and buzzing bells. Teachers are still learning to match faces with the names on their enrollment lists, and students are still adjusting to waking up on time for the bus.
The year is just beginning. But sometime soon, in most classrooms in most of the county's elementary and middle schools, the teacher will say the "T" word: TCAP, or "Tee-Cap" as it's universally pronounced.
"Pretty much from the start of the year, they say, 'Pay attention to this because it's on the TCAP,'" says Marshall Brown, a 14-year-old with cropped blonde hair who's starting his freshman year at South-Doyle High School.
Marshall is very familiar with the TCAP, a.k.a. the Terra Nova (the name of the McGraw-Hill test Tennessee has used for the past four years). He can't remember the first year he took it, but it was a routine part of his grade-school and middle-school life. In high school, he'll be greeted by a new set of statewide exams: the so-called "Gateway" tests in algebra, biology and English that his class will be the first to experience. Starting with this year's ninth grade, every student in Tennessee must pass all three Gateways to graduate.
Marshall thinks the new tests are "kind of annoying," but he's not particularly worried. He never found the TCAPs much of a challenge—"[They] always seem like maybe a grade or two below what you should be taking."
But with a fuller set of state exams envisioned, in everything from chemistry to U.S. history, and President George W. Bush making noise about a possible national testing program, the perennial questions about standardized tests are bubbling up again in editorials and statehouse debates. What do they measure? How should they be used? Are they worth the expenditures of dollars and hours they require?
Conversations with a range of local educators reveal mixed feelings. In general, parents, teachers and students all like the idea of measuring their progress. But they are cautious about investing too much significance in any one set of scores—especially when the scores are bad.
What year was the following quote written?—"The fact that intelligence tests correlate with academic achievement and school progress is unquestioned. From the very way in which the tests were assembled it could hardly be otherwise. How these facts should be capitalized upon in educational planning and individual guidance is a more troublesome matter."
The answer is B. The quote comes from a book called Measurement and Evaluation in Psychology and Education, by Robert L. Thorndike and Elizabeth Hagen. The book was already in its second edition in 1961; the first version was published in 1955. And in fact the question it poses goes back much farther still, to the earliest years of intelligence testing at the beginning of the 20th century.
The first edition of the Scholastic Aptitude Test was developed in 1926 by a social scientist named Carl Campbell Brigham. He was a Princeton graduate and, not surprising for his time, a believer in the racial selection theory of eugenics (which held that some races—mostly white northern Europeans—were superior to others). A few years before inventing what would come to be known as the SAT, he wrote a book called A Study of American Intelligence, which warned of the effects the new waves of Mediterranean immigrants would have on the nation's gene pool. Based on intelligence tests given to different segments of the population, he wrote, "American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive..."
By 1934, after several years of administering his test to Ivy League college applicants, Brigham drastically revised his thinking. His data, he said, showed that people's scores on standardized tests did not necessarily reflect just their inherited "intelligence," but also their environment and a host of other factors. "The test scores are very definitely a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else, relevant and irrelevant. The 'native intelligence' hypothesis is dead." (For more on Brigham and the history of testing in America, check out Nicholas Lemann's fascinating 1999 book The Big Test).
But with origins rooted in attempts to prove racial and cultural superiority, it's no wonder standardized tests have continued to generate skepticism and controversy even as they have evolved over the past 75 years. As early as 1944, testing companies—which were already well-established—were trying to generate "culture-free" tests using symbols and pictograms that could theoretically be understood by anyone regardless of nationality or language.
Critics of standardized tests have never been satisfied by those attempts. At the national level, the debate today sounds very much like it must have 50 years ago. On one side are the (mostly liberal) skeptics, led by a group called FairTest (www.fairtest.org), who charge that standardized tests are badly designed and still skewed toward students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. The powerful National Education Association also tends to bristle at attempts to tie
assessment of school or teacher performance to specific test scores. On the other side are assorted (mostly conservative) think tanks and groups like the Center for Education Reform (www.edreform.com), who advocate intense testing batteries to instill accountability in public education. The Bush administration's recent proposals, which include nationally normed tests in grades 3 through 8, have largely pleased the pro-testing contingent.
Tennessee currently falls somewhere in the middle. The TCAPs were part of the Education Improvement Act of 1992, which provided more funding for public schools (via a half-cent sales tax increase) but also promised more accountability. The test results are measured both with raw percentage scores and with the complicated "value-added assessment" system designed by Dr. William Sanders at the University of Tennessee. Value-added assessment attempts to measure how much each student progresses from one year to the next in each subject area.
Also embedded in the Education Improvement Act were "end-of-course" tests for high school students. The law said these were supposed to be given in "all subject areas," but the state Board of Education ultimately narrowed the list to 10: English 1 and 2, physical science, biology, chemistry, mathematics foundations, algebra 1 and 2, geometry and U.S. history. Of those, the three Gateway tests (algebra 1, biology and English 2) will be required for graduation, replacing the old 9th grade competency test. The others will simply be part of the grade for each course.
At the moment, only the Gateway tests are on schedule for implementation, beginning this year. Development of the others has been delayed by the state's budget problems.
"Two years in a row now, we have had budget reductions in that area that have thrown the other end-of-course tests farther behind," says Judith Morgan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
Not surprisingly, given the incomplete nature of its testing system, Tennessee isn't very well regarded by either testing advocates or critics. On one hand, pro-testing groups like the Fordham Foundation assail the state's "unclear" standards and curriculum. The foundation gave Tennessee an "F" in its "State of State Standards" report last year.
At the same time, in its own state-by-state report, FairTest says sourly, "Tennessee's assessment system needs a complete overhaul. It relies almost entirely on multiple-choice items, uses norm-referenced testing, and has a high school exit test." ("Norm-referenced" means scores are reported as percentiles against a national norm. The most common alternative is "criterion-referenced" tests, which measure student knowledge of a particular subject and report the score as a percentage of questions answered correctly. Most classroom tests are criterion-referenced, while tests like the TCAPs are norm-referenced. FairTest doesn't like norm references because they merely compare students to each other rather than measuring how much an individual student has learned.)
How much does Tennessee spend every year on its statewide standardized testing?
A. Nearly $16 million
B. A lot more than it used to
C. Less than it will
D. All of the above
"A lot of money is tied up in it," acknowledges Sarah Simpson, assistant superintendent for instruction in Knox County schools. According to the state Department of Education, Tennessee is currently spending $15.8 million each year on its assorted testing programs.
Simpson doesn't question the value of the exams, however. A teacher and administrator since 1963, she's seen tests come and go, with each new reform-minded governor or education commissioner putting their own stamp on them. She thinks they've gotten better over time.
"Whether we like it or not, that's really the only bonafide thing we have that even comes close to being cost-efficient that the general public and the nation can judge us on," she says. "So I think it's going to be with us."
As the primary architect of Knox County's curriculum, Simpson's biggest concern is how well the tests reflect what is actually taught in the classrooms. A consultant conducted a study of that question last year; his results are due shortly. Where there are mismatches, the curriculum will probably have to adjust. Yet Simpson rejects the common allegation that tests like the TCAPs end up dictating much of the course content.
"This 'teaching to the test' [complaint] is kind of a misnomer," she says. "You test what you teach. You don't test what you don't teach."
Educators closer to the classroom echo the sentiment. Martha Jean Bratton, principal of Christenberry Elementary School in North Knoxville, says, "If I tried to teach to the test, I wouldn't know how. They're very global. They're really testing skills. All I would know how to do to teach to that is just to do the best teaching I could do."
She says standardized tests have moved away from simply testing facts, the kind of things that students could memorize by rote, and toward testing critical thinking and comprehension.
Everyone in the system, from Simpson down to classroom teachers, insists the tests are not used punitively either with students or teachers. "We use this to diagnose and to help children," Simpson says.
Greg Lassiter, a veteran fifth-grade teacher at Christenberry, agrees. "It helps the teacher to know what they need to work on," he says. "Sometimes you get so caught up in math, or in reading, that you neglect social studies or science."
Teachers also look at the scores of their incoming students each fall to try to get a grasp on each one's strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, as much as they urge parents and the general public not to make broad judgments based on how a particular school or grade-level performs, teachers and principals themselves await the annual test results with a mixture of eagerness and anxiety. "Sometimes you're elated when you do well," Lassiter says. The opposite is also true: "I have on occasion had a teacher come in and cry and say, 'I've done everything I know how to do,'" Bratton says.
Paula Brown, president of the Knox County Education Association, says teachers' biggest fear is that the tests will become a primary tool for gauging teacher performance and even pay scales. Also, she says, the tests inevitably dictate course content to an extent.
"I don't think teachers are opposed to the tests," she says, "but I think it limits them in what they teach. And who is determining that this is what our students need to know to prepare for the world? How many classroom teachers are involved in structuring the tests?"
Students can't help internalizing the significance of the exams. Marshall Brown says that among his classmates, "Everybody takes them pretty seriously. They use them [in] the next grade for placement. And they go on file in your permanent record, I guess." Marshall and his friends usually compare results when they get their TCAP scores.
At the same time, Marshall says he doesn't pay nearly as much attention to the TCAPs as he does to his regular classroom grades. And school officials here and elsewhere say the tests are never more than one element in gauging their performance. Even in Maryville City Schools, which typically tests at or near the top of the state, superintendent Mike Dalton says, "[The results] are used only to indicate that there is a problem area. I've not had any experience in the 13 years I've worked here where we've dismissed a teacher simply for low test performance."
Educators in alternative settings use standardized tests with even more circumspection. At Greenway Middle School, a progressive private school in West Knox County, dean of students Martye Dorflinger says standardized tests provide a sort of passport when students leave to enter high school. They also serve to reassure parents that Greenway's wide-ranging hands-on curriculum is producing tangible results. "We do want our graduates to be held in high regard by any school they may choose to attend after Greenway," Dorflinger says.
But she is deeply skeptical about the depth of information provided by any single bubble-filling exam. "Standardized tests often lend themselves to learners who are best oriented to pencil and paper activities," she says. "There are other ways to develop learning and understanding. Granted, they are harder to mail in an envelope."
Parents who home-school their children face a similar double-edge with standardized tests. In Tennessee, they are required to take whatever tests are given at the school where they are registered (most often church-related schools). Cory Bennett, president of the Smoky Mountain Home Education Association and the father of four home-schooled children, says tests provide validation of home-school efforts for both education officials and the parents themselves.
"They are useful in telling you you're doing an acceptable job," he says.
But Bennett worries about pushing the tests too far. If a single national test were introduced, for example, he's afraid it would force home schoolers to increasingly restrict and adapt their own teaching to match the exam. "What we don't want to see is something that requires us to use a particular text," he says.
On a more practical level, state and local officials worry that any new federal requirement might come, as has happened in the past, without sufficient funding to pay for it.
In any case, teachers and students in Tennessee already have enough tests to keep them occupied. And despite some reservations, they will continue to pay close attention to them.
"I just really think we need to measure ourselves against something," says Bratton. "Otherwise, I'd just be out there twisting in the wind."