STANFORD -- Since the report "A
Nation at Risk" judged U.S. schools to be mediocre enough to endanger
the economic future of the country, school reform has become a major
In the past two decades, a coalition
of corporate executives, public officials and business groups
has pressed the remedy of imitating corporate organizations.
Presidents, mayors, business executives
and parents have repeatedly stressed that the primary purpose
of public schools is to prepare students academically for an expanding
job market that keeps the U.S. economy productive and globally
Toward that end, educators established
standards-based curricula, monitored test scores, had students
repeat a grade or a subject and rewarded or punished teachers
and principals when scores rose or fell.
This approach has become a state-driven formula
for urban, suburban and rural schools. Yet, continued concentration
on standards, tests and accountability hardly benefits students,
the economy or the nation.
Based on past ventures, predictable consequences
will occur. Instructional time will be increasingly allocated
to test preparation. Political pressure on policymakers will lead
to easier tests or to the lowering of the cutoff passing score
to reduce the number of students who fail to receive a diploma
or repeat grades. Massachusetts, Virginia and Arizona have already
If there is any agreement among standardized-test
designers, it is that, over time, teachers and administrators
become familiar with the skills being tested, allocate time to
prepare their students and, voila!, test scores rise. Test makers
then re-norm their tests to make them harder, and policymakers
choose different tests.
Test scores dip. Teachers are blamed, and the
cycle repeats itself. Ethnic and racial gaps in academic achievement
persist. * Standardized tests and strict accountability matter
little for either future job or long-term academic performance.
Because these tests are the tools that policymakers
depend on to hold teachers, administrators and students responsible
for their performance, there should be, at a minimum, convincing
evidence supporting linkage between tests, future academic success
and workplace performance. Very little exists.
Consider the standardized tests that elementary
and secondary-school students take repeatedly as they move toward
graduation. Employers seldom, if at all, use individuals' scores
from these tests to screen applicants. No economist claims that
these scores predict performance in the office or at the workbench.
There is the SAT (Scholastic Achievement Test).
The SAT (and similar instruments) predict something: how well
students will do academically in their first year of college.
These tests, however, cannot determine which
students will get a degree or how well they will do as lawyers,
engineers, teachers or chefs. What matters far more than test
scores is whether students receive diplomas and other credentials.
Employers use these as evidence that applicants come
to work on time, are persistent, flexible and work well with others.
Credentials matter because they signal employers that entry-level workers
have certain basic attitudes and behaviors that can be molded to company
A one-size-fits-all strategy disregards diversity
in U.S. schools. About one in 10 schools in the nation exceeds
the high academic standards and threshold for test scores laid
out by its states. Another four to five either meet or come close
to their state's standards and cutoff scores.
The rest don't. Most of these schools are located
in urban and rural districts with concentrations of poor families.
Yet, the current recipe for school reform is to hammer this three-tiered
system of academic achievement into one mold.
It seeks to lift the bottom: urban and rural
students who fail, drop out or do poorly on standardized tests.
Concentrating on those students is important not only on economic
but also on moral grounds.
Forcing all schools to fit into the same mold,
however, ignores students who already meet or exceed the standards.
A one-size-fits-all formula compresses all schools into one version
of a good school: a 1950s traditional school with high test scores.
For nearly 200 years, the public has wanted
schools to do many things. Schools are expected to create communities
of children in which learning and decency are valued; to build
literate citizens who judge wisely and who contribute to their
communities; and to prepare students to become useful workers
for a bustling economy.
It is this latter goal that drives the current
one-size-fits-all school reforms endorsed by President George
W. Bush, governors and mayors. Creating adults who can think independently,
make wise decisions, participate in their communities and care
for those who are different from themselves may be mentioned in
speeches but is hardly central to the reform agenda of the last
What should be done? For starters, focus on
urban and rural schools with high concentrations of poverty. While
Bush's plan for education moves in this direction, it is guided
by narrowly conceived goals of more tests without any attention
to what poverty does to families even before children come to
More Head Start programs, better housing, added
health services and increased job training are just a few initiatives
found in scores of federal and state programs that can be consolidated
and coordinated through schools to help families.
Ignoring poverty and the larger community undermines
test-based school reform. Reform cheerleaders over the past two
decades should publicly admit that test scores are not measures
of school productivity or necessarily beneficial to the U.S. economy.
Moreover, they need to acknowledge that test
scores tell parents and taxpayers little about how well high school
graduates will do in college and in the workplace.
Furthermore, a much broader menu of "good"
schools than reformers offer is needed. In these years of testing
frenzy, schools that are democratic, arts-based and progressive
still dot the academic landscape.They are in alternative schools,
charter schools, schools-within-a school.
But because they lack rigorous assessments
tied to standardized test scores, they are viewed as deviant and
in need of correction rather than working models of the rich and
historic goals of tax-supported public schooling.
The victory of market-oriented reformers has
brought us to the unfortunate point in our two-century history
of U.S. public schools where the best schools are the ones with
the highest test scores.
Beliefs that test scores help students become
better workers in an information-based economy, and help the larger
society become more competitive, are false.
Equally untrue is that schools with high test
scores have to be good. Many types of good schools exist in big
cities, suburbs and small towns if we can only look beyond the
simple-minded economic thinking that has produced the current
Dr. Larry Cuban is a Professor of Education at Stanford University
in Palo Alto, California.]