By Harold Berlak

President Bush and Governor Davis agree that the way to raise standards is to test students and teachers. The argument for the policy is simple. Reward those who succeed with more money and/or greater access to educational opportunities. Punish the losers. Close down low scoring schools and hold principals, teachers and students accountable for their failures. HR1, Bush’s education bill, now before Congress would cut off federal funds from schools that do not meet testing targets. Dollars earmarked for schools that primarily serve poor and disadvantaged schools would be shifted to parents to be used in ‘higher performing’ schools. 

Texas is exhibit number one that the policy of improving schools via tests does not work. Bush and his Secretary of Education and former Houston school superintendent, Rod Page, point to higher test scores, but the actual numerical gains in test scores were inconsequential, and a subsequent Rand study cast considerable doubt on the claimed gains. Texas dropout rates already among the highest in the nation have soared, most markedly for the children of the poor, of color and recent immigrants. A second study by Rice University Professor Linda McNeil documents the multiple ways Texas policy pushed students out of school, increased educational disparities, and degraded the curriculum as a consequence of enormous institutional pressures to prep students for the state mandated standardized test. 

Exhibit number two is California which began its march toward ‘aligning’ tests to standards sixteen years ago. A newly elected liberal leaning Superintendent of Instruction, Bill Honig, initiated the policy as a low cost solution to raising standards at a time that the State’s expenditures for education and other social services were rapidly shrinking. What was sold to the public as an apolitical, non-partisan plan became deeply mired in California's cultural wars and toxic electoral politics. The first of the new tests aligned to the State’s language standards was called CLAS. It was developed under contract by Educational Testing Service and arrived in 1994, an election year. Pete Wilson in his campaign for a second term as governor made CLAS into a hot button issue. He vilified the test and the standards as an effort to impose a left-wing multicultural orthodoxy on schools. With his reelection the policy completely unraveled. CLAS and the new language standards were jettisoned and subsequently curriculum standards for all major school subjects were rewritten to mollify the right. 

Under a mandate to install a test, California in 1998 adopted an off-the-shelf standardized achievement test, the Stanford 9, published by Harcourt Brace. This year for the first time the State is providing cash bonuses to the schools and teachers who have met their testing targets. In January 2001, the U.S. Office of Education informed the State of California that the Stanford 9 does not comply with existing federal regulations because it is not ‘aligned’ to the curriculum. The policy of ranking schools officially known as API, or Academic Performance Index, is in deep trouble politically and legally. Organized opposition by teachers, parents, community activists, civil rights, children's and social justice advocates is growing across the State, and there is no end in sight 

Government mandated testing, as the chief instrument of educational reform is simplistic, counterproductive, and a major assault on local, democratic control of the nation’s public schools. The tragedy is that mandated standardized testing increases inequalities, perpetuates institutional racism and intellectual mediocrity. While it inflicts harm on all children, those likely to be hurt most are the children of the poor, of color, immigrants, and those with special developmental needs. 

Testing has been sold to the public as an inexpensive fix for our schools. This is false. In addition to the social costs, the direct and indirect expenditures are enormous, in the multi-billions annually. These resources could and should be devoted to fixing deteriorated school buildings, buying more books, raising teacher salaries, and encouraging the development of systems of accountability that expand and deepen student learning, and extend opportunities to all our children. 

Harold Berlak is a former history teacher, a teacher educator, researcher, educational activist, and author of several books and articles on testing policy, curriculum, and the schooling process. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Applied Research Center in Oakland, California and a Fellow in the Educational Policy Project at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He lives in Oakland. Email:


1. At best the gains are mixed. California reports 4-5 percentile points on the Stanford 9. Texas reports as much as 11 percentile points gain on its own test ( TAAS). A Rand report ‘Improving Student Achievement; What State NAEP Scores Tell us ? (available at shows gains of three percentile points or less. On the other hand, the Nation’s Report Card compiled by National Center for Educational study indicates a small but steady decline in NAEP reading scores of high school students. (available at http://www.nces.ed/gov)

2. Linda McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing. New York: Routledge, 2000

3. Eight years ago, Boston College Researchers Walter Haney, George Madaus, and Robert Lyons estimated indirect costs at 20 billion annually (The Fractured Marketplace for Standardized Testing Boston: Kluwer, 1993) According to the Bowker Annual, expenditures for tests alone doubled annually between 1980 and 1997 to 200 million dollars. Current estimate is over one billion. Rarely considered in calculating administrative costs are the costs of lost teaching days, and of the countless additional hours in and out of school devoted to coaching students for tests.

[Other useful and timely articles and reports can be found at the Educational Policy Project at and Applied Research Center and]

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