WASHINGTON -- Test every student. Publish the results in school "report cards." Use the scores to decide how much teachers earn, or even which schools should stay open.
Once a rare find in the blackboard jungle, the standardized test has become king -- taking a prominent role in both local politics and the tight race for the presidency.
"Test scores are a political tool, not an educational one," said Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass., group that monitors testing. "They used to say we're going to be tough on crime. Now it's 'we're going to be tough on education,' and that means testing."
The candidates, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, both promise to require greater testing, as a way to hold schools accountable for student performance. At the same time, test scores, and what clues they might offer on student preparation, were used to cast doubt on Bush's Texas education record.
Politicians and the people who vote for them prefer the measurable yardstick of a test score, educators say. Other ways to prove students were learning -- tape recordings of their reading, teachers' notes on their attendance and attentiveness in class, interviews with students on lessons -- are harder to present to a public hungry for constant proof of student achievement.
"Americans are seduced by numbers," said Kathe Taylor, an Evergreen State College educator who's co-written books on testing. "The standardized test has the beauty of appearing to convey a wealth of information in just one little old number."
The standardized test, which originated in the military to weed out recruits, is not like a math quiz or history test that a child typically takes in school to review a week's or month's worth of lessons. They measure what students should know based on preset standards.
Educators at every level of government struggle with making tests fair, relevant and lawsuit-proof. Competing opinion polls alternately declare parents the friends or foes of pupil exams. Meanwhile, the fight over testing is evidenced in political races across the country.
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