Food For Thought

Today's Education: It's All About Passing the Test

by Dr. John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John Bonfadini

The amount of information and statistical data that’s now available on educational testing is mind-boggling. Spending a week reading all types of reports led me to the conclusion that you can still make statistics say whatever you want.

One thing that stands out in my review is the increased emphasis on standardized testing as the methodology for determining the quality of many educational programs. Over the past decade, states have developed a significant number of testing schemes.

Do these testing schemes answer the question “are students performing better today than they did a decade ago?”

This year the SAT scores in Virginia are about the same as last year. When scores stay the same or decline, officials begin to look for ways to spin the results to show success. This year’s spin emphasizes that students in Virginia held their own while the test population expanded to include a more varied testing population. The results still show that ethnic, gender and income disparities remain. All three sections of the test show that minority students fell below their white peers. This historical trend still exists and more testing has not dramatically changed the results, other than to emphasize that more students are taking different courses. 

Verbal and math scores have increased over the past 15 years. The increases ranged from 10 to 19 points. What’s important is what we are doing to the educational system to obtain these — at best, modest — test score increases. To achieve test-score gains we have forced more students into the so- called AP (advanced placement) courses. There has also been a significant effort to

require more higher-level math courses. I strongly disagree with the theory that higher-level math courses are better for everyone.

These actions tend to narrow program options for students. We begin to follow a “one-suit-fits-all” educational philosophy. We never ask ourselves what value is placed on moving a student’s reading level from 5th grade to 6th grade, and is it the same value as moving a student from the 11th- to the 12th-grade reading level? In my opinion, it’s far more important to expend resources to move students from the 5th- to the 6th-grade level than the 11th- to the 12th-grade level. Better to know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide before you jump into factoring a trinomial.

The Virginia superintendent of public instruction has said, “By staying the course and maintaining the high expectations for student achievement of the Standards of Learning program, Virginia is producing students who are confident of their academic abilities and are better prepared for college ... Students who 10 years ago might not have taken the SAT I or AP courses are now reaching higher.”

When I read this statement, I wanted to ask, “What about the kids who aren’t going to college?” Furthermore, if we are doing such a good job, why do so many students fail to finish college? I can remember one faculty meeting at George Mason University when the counseling faculty wanted to increase the GPA admissions requirement to the graduate program from 3.2 to 3.5. There is no correlation between an increase in GPA and job performance. Raising test-score requirements just seems to be the easiest thing to do, but, it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.

In my own research I found no relationship between a teacher’s college GPA and how the teacher was ranked by his or her students. How often have you asked your M.D. what his GPA was before seeking treatment? I believe that most of us feel comfortable if they fall into a certain academic range, knowing that many other factors go into the evaluation process in determining a “good doctor.” If we stay the course of putting more and more emphasis on a narrower and narrower band of the educational spectrum, we will be doing a disservice to many of our students. Over-reliance on tests like the SOLs has caused the tail to wag the dog. Public education has become all about passing the test.

My three children are all teachers. Two are teaching in Virginia. When I asked them what they thought of the current emphasis on testing, they laughed and asked, “You want to get us fired?” I know from talking with them and many others that they think testing is improperly used. They mentioned problems such as unrealistic testing goals. When students fail to meet these testing goals, educators circumvent the system by permitting students to opt out of the test. Some form of portfolio evaluation is then used to demonstrate competency, which is probably a better system of evaluation and should have been used in the first place. Schools have limited resources, and too much of these resources are now used to get kids prepared to pass the test.

George Johnson, former president of George Mason University, when asked by a faculty member why he chose to offer a certain degree, said, “It’s a tent like Noah’s ark, that can shelter many animals.”

That’s what education is all about — finding a tent/ark that can accommodate many kids. An ark built on a foundation of high-stakes testing won’t do it unless you limit the kind of animals that are allowed on the ark. Right now, there are too many kids floating in the floodwaters. Education must open the doors to the ark. Let’s not just throw them a life jacket stuffed with tests. 

Whats Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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