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TC Forum: Dilemmas of High-Stakes Testing

Accountability for the results of high-stakes tests - including New York's Regents' examinations - should be "a shared responsibility of states, school districts, public officials, educators, parents and students rather than resting solely on the shoulders of students," Associate Professor Jay Heubert told a group of New York City metropolitan superintendents gathered at TC.

About 50 school administrators came to the College for a meeting of the TC Forum. The Forum is an education-policy seminar offered twice a semester by Thomas Sobol, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice and the director of TC's annual Superintendents Work Conference.

Heubert joined the Department of Organization and Leadership this fall, and is also an adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School. He recently directed a Congressionally mandated study, conducted by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), on the use of "high stakes" tests used for student tracking, promotion, or graduation. The committee included experts on testing from such fields as psychometrics, political science, sociology, and psychology. Robert Hauser, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, chaired the committee.

In his remarks to the superintendents gathered at TC, Heubert said that the committee concluded that there were both proper and improper ways of using tests to make high-stakes decisions about individual students. One principle of appropriate test use is that educators should not rely on test scores alone in making high-stakes decisions. The committee cautioned that "High-stakes decisions such as tracking, promotion, and graduation should not automatically be made on the basis of a single test score but should be buttressed by other relevant information about the student's knowledge and skills, such as grades, teacher recommendations, and extenuating circumstances."

Also, using test scores in deciding whether to grant or withhold high school diplomas is appropriate only if educators can show that students have been taught the subject matter on which they will be tested.

President Clinton and others advocate the use of high-stakes tests because they want all students in America to meet world-class standards. "This is a worthy objective," Heubert noted," but there is evidence that in many school districts and schools students are not receiving the world-class curriculum and instruction that should accompany world-class standards. If new world-class standards were in effect today, roughly 40 percent of all students would fail."

Copies of the NAS study, entitled High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation, are available through National Academy Press in Washington, DC.

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