ASEE PRISM - Feb 2001
Last Word

By Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.

Not surprisingly, most of the pre-election discussion about public school education reform got mired in peripheral issues, such as spending levels, class size, or vouchers. But hovering there just below the sound bite level, a much more serious battle was underway—one that may have far more to do with the quality of U.S. education than funding or special benefits for selected children. That issue is whether or not we're going to commit to a system of education that charts progress based on our kids' performance on standardized tests.

To the narrow band of emerging anti-testing cultists, the trouble with education is not that millions of students can't read, do math, or write. The problem is the tests that tell us so. To these critics, all tests are alike—designed to demoralize or disenfranchise certain segments of the student population.

They couldn't be more wrong. Certainly bad tests should be scrapped, and tests are not the only measure for determining how our children and schools are doing. But high-quality tests are one legitimate instrument for measuring students' actual learning. There's no successful institution in the world that pursues a strategic direction without establishing performance benchmarks and continuously measuring progress.

For more than 40 states, the days of traditional multiple-choice tests that required teachers to set aside real learning and teach test-taking skills are fading. Today's tests often include open-ended questions, demand writing samples, and require students to show, honestly and accurately, what they know. The new tests ask students to solve complex mathematics problems and explain solutions, to critically examine literary techniques and articulate their thinking in written essays. That's a far cry from drills in information regurgitation. On the recent New York state test for 11th-graders, 92 percent passed the new, tougher test in English language arts.This kind of testing leads to better teaching. It also tells elected officials and educators where they ought to direct resources and efforts. 

The rest of the developed world is years ahead of us on this issue, and the performance of their students shows it. Despite what you hear from testing critics, support for higher standards and tests is strong in this country, widespread and anchored where it counts—with parents and the taxpaying public. A poll by the American Federation of Teachers documented deep support for standards and assessments among teachers as well. The last Quinnipiac College Poll showed that 86 percent of New Yorkers and an equal number of parents believed that one essential step to improving schools is requiring students to pass standardized tests before advancing to the next grade.

Blaming a good test for bad teaching, isolated cheating incidents, or the lowering of students' self-esteem is convenient, but it's about as useful as claiming that thermometers cause fevers. We need testing to tell us whether we have a problem. From there, it's up to smart people—in government, school administration, teaching, and the ranks of parents—to come up with the right solutions.

There are always going to be entrenched special interests and critics who fundamentally question whether schools and students should be held to any standards at all. They often sound as if they speak as advocates for the kids. Don't be misled. True advocates for the kids look for ways to elevate student achievement, not hold fast to the status quo.

Testing will not elevate standards overnight. Getting from here to there is going to involve some short-term pain—which ought to be shared, not borne by children, teachers, or parents alone. More challenging tests will initially result in lower scores. But as we've seen in case after case, teachers, students, and the system itself consistently rise to meet higher expectations, especially if they get extra help. North Carolina and Texas—two states with the largest education gains, according to a Rand study—are showcase examples of what happens when we have the courage to stick with high standards and high-stakes testing.

Educators and education officials need to focus on the work in front of us and answer important questions: Are the academic expectations clear and understood by schools, students, and parents? Have they been benchmarked against expectations for students in other communities and countries? Do schools and teachers have the lessons and curriculum aligned with both standards and tests and the support to get the job done?

The response to challenges posed by higher standards is not to lower them or roll back on testing, but to improve both, administer them fairly, and give our kids a shot at the kind of quality education that they deserve—and that we should demand.

Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is chairman and CEO of IBM.