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Too many exams can spoil pupil initiative

An American expert argues against assessment overload. David Budge reports

Lorrie Shepard, one of America's leading experts on student assessment, holds up three fingers when she is asked what she knows about the consequences of "high stakes" testing.

The first finger represents test-score inflation. The second, curriculum distortion, and the third, reduced pupil motivation.

Yes, it is fair to say that the University of Colorado professor disapproves of the Bush administration's passion for testing.

However, she acknowledges that even President Bush and his advisers seem to understand that reported test-score gains should be independently verified. That's essential if US education is to avoid some of the nonsenses that came to light about 10 years ago, she told last month's American Educational Research Association conference. One 1990 study revealed that all 50 US states and most school districts were claiming to be above average.

The ever-present danger of teaching to the test without giving children a deeper understanding of the material they are covering also perturbs her.

"Would you believe that 86 per cent of seventh-graders could answer a two-column addition problem correctly when presented in a vertical format, but only 46 per cent could answer an identical problem in a horizontal format?" she said.

"In general, if you focus on teaching to one test format and then you give a different test - not a harder test, just a different format - kids lose 20 o 30 per cent."

Such statistics have heightened academics' scepticism about not only America's tests but their UK cousins. But Shepard says many policy-makers seem impervious to such arguments.

"They look at sample test items and ask, not unreasonably, why wouldn't you want students to know these things? What's wrong with teaching to the test? Our professional opposition does not come from lower standards but from closer-hand knowledge of the evidence."

Shepard approves of large-scale testing programmes such as the National Assessment of Education Progress, which can track standards over time, but does not believe states should test every student every year. However, she sees little point in mounting a revolution against the overwhelming forces driving the US's accountability movement.

"Instead of Tiananmen Square, I suggest the strategies of Radio Free Europe," she says. "Ultimately it will be a change in public understanding about when to believe test results that will forestall such pervasive misuse in future."



* 48 states now carry out their own tests to measure children's progress.

* 40 states publish report cards on individual schools, based largely on test scores.

* 18 states have the power to close, take over or replace staff in failing schools.

* High school graduation and "social promotion" (moving on to the next grade with your peer group) can hang on a single test.

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