President’s Corner

The Test-Taking Time of Year

by Don Kussmaul president, AASA

It’s that time of the year when our thoughts turn to testing in the following ways:

  • Superintendents hope that students are prepared to provide adequate representation on state testing for No Child Left Behind;
  • Principals wonder whether everything has been done to help all subgroups achieve;
  • Teachers are frantic about covering all the material and ensuring students are prepared;
  • The younger students are still convinced that this is a great opportunity to demonstrate what they know, while the older students are wondering, “What’s the big deal?”

As the saying goes, “As long as there is testing in school, there will be prayer in school.” And these days, the educators and parents are praying just as much as the students.

Much rests on the results of today’s high-stakes tests, including the very future of the country’s schools and districts. State and federal takeovers loom large over some underperforming districts — and the keys to their future are found in their assessment data.

I recently read a useful article, “What’s Good About Public Schools,” by Jack Jennings and Madlene Hamilton of the Center for Education Policy in the May 2004 issue of the National PTA's magazine Our Children. (You can find it at www.ctredpol.org/pubs/PTA_May_2004/PTA_May_2004.htm. The authors take on those who broadly condemn the American public school system by providing what they describe in their piece as a “clearheaded look at the facts.” This month seems like an appropriate time to share some things I learned.

First, the United States is the No. 1 power in the world. No other country comes close in terms of economic and military strength. It’s the people who made this country the powerful and prosperous country it is, and nearly 90 percent of them were educated in public schools.

Second, American students know more than the students who went before them and they have the performance scores to prove it. Between 1990 and 2000, the math and reading scores of students in grades 4 and 8 were up across the board and for all major and ethnic groups, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is known as the nation’s report card.

Third, NAEP scores for grades 4 and 8 have continued to rise since 2000. African American and Hispanic students have registered some of the most sizeable gains in both reading and math in recent years.

Fourth, 12 th graders haven’t shown the same progress, and their NAEP scores have actually declined. One explanation, according to researchers, may be that because graduating seniors know the NAEP test results have no bearing on their personal futures, they don’t take the test seriously.

Fifth, in 2003, high school students scored 18 points higher on the SAT than their counterparts in 1990. The College Board reports that high school students are taking more demanding courses than in the past, such as calculus and physics. In fact, the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement tests nearly doubled in the past decade.

Sixth, more high school students are going on to postsecondary education — and that holds true for all major racial and ethnic groups.

So while we may feel like tests and testing are overshadowing the joy of learning, especially at this time of the year, we should take the time to enjoy what those assessments are telling us: Public schools are doing a good job.

I am not suggesting that we rest on our laurels just yet, however. Much work still needs to be done to eradicate inequities in American schools and eliminate achievement gaps between students from different economic, social and ethnic groups. But I am confident that together, we can do it. We must do it. We must all Stand Up for Public Education TM: The Heart of Our Democracy. It has certainly served us well in the past.

Donald Kussmaul is president of AASA.