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Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis

Winter 1988, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 301-313

Symbolic Validation: The Case of State-Mandated, High-Stakes
Testing

Peter W. Airasian
Boston College

Because the wisdom and likely effects of educational innovations rarely are established before
their adoption, the innovations must seek their legitimacy in nonempirical sources. This
paper uses the example of the rapid rise of state-mandated, high-stakes testing programs to
suggest that proposed innovations find their way into practice by virtue of their potency as
symbols of prevalent value orientations in the wider culture. Thus, innovations undergo a
type of consensual, symbolic validation that determines their acceptability. State-mandated,
high-stakes testing programs have gained widespread popular support in the quest for
heightened educational standards because they symbolize order and control, desired educa-
tional outcomes, and traditional moral values.

Most educational innovations are adopted services that were provided argued for re-
with high levels of technical uncertainty; the form in special education in the 1970s. Var-
wisdom of their adoption and the range of ious forms of test score data showing de-
their likely effects rarely are known in ad- clines in pupil performance were offered in
vance of their implementation (Rowan, the early 1980s to support the contention
1982; Wise, 1979). Although many thought- that our nation was at risk and in need of
ful individuals have reminded us of this fact higher educational standards.
and urged a more systematic, evidence- Each of these types of evidence provided
based approach to innovation (Campbell, legitimacy to the importance of a particular
1969; Fullan, 1982; Suchman, 1967), their problem area and to the need for reform in
advice has gone largely unheeded. that area. The evidence did not, however,
The past 25 years have seen scant empir- provide legitimacy to the Title I programs,
ical evidence to justify the implementation Public Law 94-142 statutes, and competency
of a wide range of educational programs testing programs that were ultimately se-
including, but by no means limited to, Title lected to remedy the problems. There is an
(Chapter) I, Public Law 94-142, and state- important difference between evidence that
mandated high school graduation tests. documents the need for intervention and
There is little disagreement that reform was evidence that documents the efficacy of a
needed in each of these areas, and empirical particular strategy of intervention. Typi-
evidence was brought forth to document the cally, once a need for intervention is docu-
severity of the problems in each area. Data mented empirically, the specific policy, pro-
showing test score differences between dif- gram, or approach advanced to meet that
ferent racial and ethnic groups were a key need must seek its own sources of legitimi-
justification for the need for compensatory zation and validation. These sources rarely
education programs of the 1960s. Evidence include trial testing and collection of empir-
of the failure to provide services to special ical evidence.
needs pupils and the inadequacies of many Several reasons explain why empirical evi-

301

and sentiments. raising grade to grade pro- school performance between racial/ethnic motion requirements. developing incentives groups. 1927). Symbols tend to be evocative choice of many actions that can be taken. is perceived to be capable of moving educa- ficiencies in an innovation or delay imple. there are pressures to intro- duce unproven remedies once a problem or Symbols and Symbolism need is documented. White- thing now. that innovation is perceived to incorporate edge about how to remedy identified edu. the political benefit that accrues what may be termed social validation. norms. the goals. school children. The sons. for example. "Improve the educational achieve. That is to say. as it is erbated—generally limits both the opportu.g. In essence. the innovation will be well carry out pretrial studies before widespread received. some combination of these strategies. must be found elsewhere. Whether the problem is disparities in ucation programs. sian. innovation is determined largely by how well Finally. emotions. Rowan. Most often. levels of academic performance among values. 1976). mandate. norms and values. legitimacy of most innovations then. innovation almost always day. legitimacy of the chosen reform strategy doption trials of proposed solutions (Aira.. the ur. If an innovation possibility that pilot studies will identify de. and it is or the knowledge necessary to carry them this symbolic weighing of innovations that out (e. or declining school standards. innovations "Don't exceed 55 miles per hour"). instituting remedial ed- tion. 1982).g. pupils' competence. tions they evoke and the extent to which some policies are explicit and tell us all we those perceptions mesh with prevalent social need to know to do what is correct (e. mandating exit tests to certify problem or crisis that demands urgent solu. tacked by extending the length of the school In the first place. rather than analytical. in the to those who promulgate. derives tions in such general terms that pretrial stud. Wise. If em- gency to alleviate the problem—to "do pirical evidence regarding the efficacy of any something now" lest the problem be exac. or all of these approaches is lacking. and symbolism helps clarify this relation- tions fits into this latter group. Airasian dence does not and cannot play an impor. social constituencies (Cremin. A decline in not only concrete images. then the nity and the will to carry out empirical prea." policymakers typically have a head. symbols evoke educational or social problems. but also feelings. adding required courses to the school is conceived of in response to some social curriculum. may be at- tant role in the legitimization of innovations. So. For these ship. typically for the reasons just stated. a general lack of technical knowl. the large number of latchkey chil. 1983). or values of important cational problems (Airasian. A symbol is a concrete indicator of a more Nevertheless. 1956. determines their legitimacy in the public's ment of disadvantaged children"). 1987b. tional or social goals in a direction consistent mentation by provoking debate over study with the goals. when pressed to "do some. three reasons. or values of influential findings can eliminate the political will to social groups. mesh between prevalent social norms and act reform programs is itself often a prime values and the norms and values perceived and sufficient motivation for unexamined to be reflected in the reform strategy (Par- implementations (Moynihan. 1970). 1961). general. that legitimacy is found in Second. The 1979) forces policymakers to frame innova.. but rather from the percep- Elmore and McLaughlin (1982) point out. for poor learners to drop out of school. 1973. The eyes. 302 . the likelihood of adopting an adoption (Timpane. or dren.Peter W. norms. whereas are weighed in terms of whether they are others do not contain sufficient information symbols of broader social values. abstract idea (Firth. A brief examination of social symbols stated intent of most educational innova. not from empirical evidence of their likely ies are difficult to plan and carry out. and en. As effectiveness. emotional rather than there are many ways to attack identified intellectual.

1979). shared understandings of the social group dents and white students were taken to sym. The com- time. 1973). ments that symbolize experiences or values Central to the study of symbols is the generally believed in the extant cultural question of the relationship between a sym. differ. valid. For example. Freud's approach to the conveying different images in two cultures analysis of dreams became viable when he (e. For example. ual. the ularities and commonalities that are con- most ubiquitous of symbolic forms. test score disparities between black stu. Symbolism derives from the values syncrasies. ethos to be necessary for solving a given bol and the things or emotions it represents. and experiences based on existential or consensual valida- 303 . description of the advent of the school effi- 1973). issue of the political or social validity of tion. Public symbols. the specific content and context of vention. 1962). each person's dream tance (Firth. not from hand.g. on the other and ideals of the extant culture. being described (Lindblom & Cohen. they emerge from the reg- the cultural dependence of language. and exemplify situations in which there was a dependent on cultural experiences. bolize the "natural order of things" between The reaction to the symbol is dependent on racial groups—a reaffirmation of the pre. Symbolic validity then. Both types are true symbols. social or educational problem. dreams. of the vocational education movement in Symbols themselves can be categorized the 1880s and 1890s and Callahan's (1962) into two domains: public and private (Firth. When an innovation contains ele- area of social reform. l973. acceptance. fill in the details. and lack of progress in an important symbols. 1940. leaving the individual's memory to in cultural mores and expectations. they are ciency movement in the period 1910 to 1930 representational. this commonality. ential school test performance among racial The common experiences or values un- or ethnic groups is taken to symbolize un. In more recent times. stracts only the important aspects of the 1975). sym. reflect common threads underlying the concrete indicator itself For example. or agreement within the our dreams vary from one person to another. believed to be necessary for resolving an symbols can be understood as shorthand. habit. identified problem. Because cultures change over dividuals' dreams (Firth. Cremin's (1961) discussion of the rise emker. which the innovation will be perceived to be municate experiences and emotions (Lo. Private clear meshing of cultural values and educa- symbols reflect an individual's particular tional responses.. is a private symbol reflecting his or her idio- 1927). State-Mandated Testing In addition to being representational and and so have meaning only for that individ- infused with an affective component. In this context. At the individual level. is idiosyncrasies. tion will achieve social legitimization and cial symbols while others do not? The an. readily understandable in an audience and ality of experience or perception among the degree to which that commonality is those who accept and use it. the innova- Why do some objects become powerful so. often emotion laden. culture for their meanings and impor. derlying public symbols shed light on the equal educational opportunity. Whitehead. given changes referent.Peirce. can be tained in and can be discerned from private seen in many examples of a given word symbols. private symbols. discrimina. dictate the extent to mnemonic devices to remember and com. boot in the United States evokes an showed that the private symbols of one in- image of footwear but in England boot dividual's dreams had underlying common- evokes an image of the empty space in the alities with the private symbols of other in- back of a car). The degree to which the inno- swer to this question must reflect the fact vation symbolizes something common or that a symbol derives from some common. although each of us bols flow from culture and depend on con. the meanings of symbols can change monality sought in public symbols rests and evolve. because the symbol ab- dominant hereditarian outlook (Cronbach. less than 50 years largely on the cultural experiences and ago. Thus. background.

The National adoption of proposed. 68% of respondents favored stricter high school graduation requirements even if Documenting the Problem it meant that fewer students would graduate. high-stakes tests. Airasian tion. There was a of implementation of such testing programs. but level. and not improving.Popham. high-stakes testing programs (Aira. 60% of adults polled believed that elemen- tual issues addressed in this discussion have tary school pupils were not made to work created a too-willing audience for state-man. and than it was 26 years ago when Sputnik was whether remedial funds or performance bo. Madaus. Once the need for reform was docu- pressed about the quality of American mented by evidence such as this. There was a perception emotional referents. In a 1983 Gallup Poll on education whether the tests are good and dependable (Gallup. psychometric properties of state-man. Commission on Educational Excellence vations. were remedial courses. The tests appeared virtually out of no. felt that high school pupils were not required dience that needs to have its expectations to work hard enough in school. on public symbols and their value. that SAT scores had declined annually be- cational innovation. 1987). 70% of American adults sur- amination of the technical properties of such veyed said that there should be stricter re- tests. such as American pupils never ranked first or sec- whether or not a pupil will receive a high ond. hard enough in school. 1983). attainments. 1986). quirements for both grade to grade promo- The Case of State-Mandated. inno. The National Assess- dated. The following sections seek to standards and academic performance had explain the unusual popularity and breadth fallen to unacceptable levels. ment of Educational Progress results showed sian. namely state-man. Sixty-seven percent dated. These and similar statistics conveyed also far outstrips available evidence of their a picture of an educational system in which effectiveness. concern began to be ex. tween 1963 and 1980. but untested. but ranked last seven times. math courses taught in public 4-year colleges ers. one quarter of all the nuses will be awarded to schools and teach. and schools and pupils. (Gallup. cellence and improve school standards and cal. many pol- 304 . dated. The Department of where about 10 years ago and have enjoyed the Navy indicated that one quarter of its an acceptance and status that not only is recruits could not read at the ninth-grade rarely seen in an educational innovation. 1987c. after two decades of focus on policies designed to enhance edu. Data showed sessed by a new and rapidly spreading edu. On 19 being used as the primary criteria in making different international achievement tests important educational decisions. it is necessary to point out that the percep. performance declines over time in most The results of such testing programs are school subjects at most grade levels. launched.Peter W. In 1984 (Gallup. whether a teacher will be certified or ardized tests was lower in the early 1980s recertified to teach in a given state. to document this perception. In this regard. In 1986 tempered by a more critical review and ex. The American public clearly endorsed this lic perceptions of these tests. This paradigm can be that standards in schools had declined and useful in explaining the adoption or lack of needed to be strengthened. High-Stakes tion and high school graduation. (1983) summarized the evidence advanced This paper explores the symbolism pos. Responding to the Perceived Need cational equity. In the same Testing Programs poll. l985. perceived need to focus on educational ex- This paper does not deal with the techni. an au. high-stakes testing programs. 74% of the American adults in a technical sense. 1984). but rather with pub. In the late 1970s. but asks why people polled agreed that the quality of education have been so quick to adopt them in the in American public schools was only fair name of educational reform. Average school diploma or be promoted to the next achievement of high school pupils on stand- grade. In 1980. It does not ask view.

has performance. The high stakes associated on year-to-year pupil test score improve- with test performance will force an instruc. score can be compared to a statewide stand. administration. the content re. ment." 1985) in- erage. forts to improve educational standards and 1987a). in state colleges and to determine admit- The logic behind these testing programs is tance on the basis of these test scores (Leh- that when an important consequence. Such tests within a state. 1987). 1987. (p. As of April 1987. influences the instructional been new forms of standardized testing and program that prepares students for the test accountability programs. states have passed legislation that requires Third. Hertzog & Lehr. the new state tests are man. and interpretation. receive a per. achievement. then. and most of amination system (Madaus & Airasian. be 44 states had implemented or decided to promoted to the next grade. to local school districts and to award mon- flected in the test will become incorporated etary bonuses to schools and teachers based into instruction. test applicants to teacher training programs tional reward or sanction. teachers. content cov. the predom. such as receiving a high Other states use pupil performance on state- school diploma or a teaching certificate is mandated tests to allocate remedial funding tied to test performance. 1987. Rudner. serves as a powerful make students. Tests have moved from recorders of the 305 . 1985). California and Pennsylvania are tional response to the test so that the test working on implementing "honors" tests content will. dicated that 29 states require pupils to take state-approved test that is administered. The new state-mandated tests are different High-stakes standardized tests have be- from more traditional standardized educa. vidual can graduate from high school. on standardized tests. Any individual's test receipt of a regular high school diploma. 1987). the school administrator has no dis. Once the test is award prospective teachers state certifi- scored. because of the important inant strategy. A high-stakes test of educational achievement. come cornerstones in state government ef- tional tests in three key ways (Airasian. Popham (1987) states (Doyle & Hartle. Second. scoring. "drive" that will be used to certify advanced achieve- instruction. by the British O and A Level external ex. cation. in current parlance. however. Teachers tend to focus a significant years all state legislatures have been con. in terms of the breadth of its contingencies associated with the students' application and its public acceptance. and most have endorsed. and schools ac. is. A single. . 680) countable for their academic performance. curricular magnet. First. Over 20 guidelines is used across school districts. Among the wide Measurement-driven instruction occurs array of reform strategies advanced to im. in Education Week ("Excellence. Eight states and several large cities tie grade ard of satisfactory performance and a pass/ to grade promotion to pupils' performance fail decision made about whether the indi. and so on. implement a testing program to be used to formance bonus. have assumed new and important gatekeep- nates most of the local district discretion in ing roles in the educational process. new the knowledge and skills assessed by such state-mandated testing programs designed to tests. the mandate elimi. This approach is practiced in ment in particular high school subjects most countries of the world and exemplified (Carlson. portion of their instructional activities on fronted by. Twenty-seven states test or plan to cretion in whether to dole out the educa. the tests have built-in sanctions or a high school students to show mastery on a so-called high stake associated with specific state-mandated exit test as a prerequisite to levels of performance. Within the past 10 . and interpreted according to state points in the educational ladder. . A survey test selection. to gain control over education in local dated for all schools and virtually all pupils school districts (Airasian. State-Mandated Testing icy responses were advanced. these were tried in one form or another 1977). 1987a). when a high stakes test of educational prove school quality. that mann & Phillips. a high stake. competency or proficiency tests at selected scored.

the concept of a test is meaningful to most dated. high-stakes achievement tests tem. & Pallas. All this has occurred attach idiosyncratic meaning and images to in barely a 10-year period. national testing program for public school they symbolize a distinct value or moral students. three quarters of the respond. In of tests and examinations in biography and the same poll. education from teachers and school admin- McDill. grade to grade pro. Gallup Poll re. These data reflect substantial Tests as symbols of order and control In and ongoing public support for testing for. resource allo. 1977). American educational system has had little Rafferty (1985) examined the significance of prior experience with them (Airasian. poetry. Although each individual may American education. Moreover. tests and examinations in society by survey- Madaus & Airasian. to see national tests given in their local they symbolize order and control in a system schools so that achievement can be com. Second. types of symbolic appeal. the public supports the new forms general. In 1984 (Gallup. to be weak. mandated. rience and provides a contextual reference motion. 74% of the public at large endorsed a important educational outcomes. there are also more Clearly. 1988. 1987c. tionwide examination to get a high school State-mandated. constructs they are perceived to measure. First. Certainly dices to certification devices. Rafferty has children should be promoted from grade to shown both the permeation of the concept grade only if they can pass examinations. 1985). three generally distinct. the concept of a test. even though the reflect commonalities across individuals. The credibility of school-based as- are endorsed heartily by the public at large. In the 1987 Gal. main- achievement could be compared across tenance of standards). though not mutually vealed that 77% of respondents would like exclusive. fiction and the commonalities tests and ex- ents endorsed testing pupils in local schools aminations are perceived to symbolize (e. high-stakes tests possess diploma. from passive instruments to intru- sive devices that threaten test takers and seek One answer to this question is that state- to dictate the ends of the instructional sys. 1983) indicated nontechnical writings such as biographies. and obstructive at worst. 1987b. sessment has diminished in the face of pes- The question is. and monetary bonuses abound in tal images. (Elam. 1987). Airasian effects of educational reform to initiators of Tests as Symbols reform. about test is not affectively neutral and most often two thirds of those polled agreed that all evokes images of an experience that was high school students in the United States unpleasant at best and anxiety-provoking should be required to pass a standard na. The 1986 poll (Gallup. ing the manner in which they are treated in sults from 1983 (Gallup. although only 31 % of professional outlook that the public wishes to see re- educators endorsed such a testing program flected in its schools. high-stakes tests used to determine Americans. teacher certification. 1984). standards and achievement in schools has wisely or not. State-man.. Why? simistic news about educational standards 306 . 1986) re. with national tests so that educational fear of failure. 1987). Third. that 75% of American adults believed that fiction. Tests have moved from descriptive in.Peter W. Certainly little clear empirical doing? The answer sought most often is evidence of their effectiveness in increasing rooted in standardized test results because.g. it is in the realm of their expe- high school graduation. possess potent symbolic appeal. the public is no longer willing been produced. mats and uses that were virtually unknown support for schools is conditioned by the and untried in the United States until answer to the question: How are our schools around 1980. they symbolize. most communities and in the nation at large. in the lup Poll of Education (Gallup & Clark. capable of conjuring up many and rich men- cation. path to social mobility. Madaus. and their benefits are to accept testimonials about the status of debated (Airasian. Yet they istrators. public meanings and images that of educational testing. the word communities. Natriello. where autonomous local control is perceived pared across communities. and drama.

there educational credentialing system because. choice test. moved from the assessment process by ex- Feeling uncertainties and fragmentations ternally mandated high-stakes tests. many want single. they ask implicitly for effective systematizations. but it is to point out achievement test results publicly on a state that most tests measure only a small portion by state and community by community ba. chaos. the order of the day in the public schools In this regard. At once.e. External tests reinforce a sense tions for the children.or 45-item multiple public reporting for comparison purposes. Kirst. high-stakes tests rarely tell us things we don't nal assurance of the quality of the teaching already know about pupils. tests are perceived as sym- (Airasian. and and more by arguments against relativism objective because preestablished cut scores and multiplicity. teristics of state-mandated. for what is "logically resulting increase in control. the decisions we require from such tests ardized tests as the one index it believes can pertain to minimum competence. they have more legiti- cation in our local schools and that diversity. of student behavior vis a vis some content sis so that comparisons can be made among domain. high-stakes standardized tests are pupils' achievement and pupils' measured being used to restore public trust in the achievement are typically in the . This is not to (Gallup & Clark. In addition. these perceptions provide To provide a perspective on this symbol- powerful motives for state-mandated.6 to .. higher salaries. Only 14% of those polled opposed on a one-shot. 30. fairness. State-Mandated Testing and pupil achievements. State-man. their compliance with state educational Second. of the unpre. objectivity. 1987b. for categorical tional decisionmaking. with a all around. Although provide the evidence it seeks. Important decisions often are based schools. There is a sense that agreements that will overcome what strikes human judgment and biases are being re- people as cognitive as well as moral chaos. and standards. mizing power than locally derived tests and competing interests. Greene bols of order and control in the midst of (1987) has summed up this sense and its diversity. Most Americans trust and desire external First. 1987) indicates that 70% say they are trivial either in their perceived of the adults surveyed support reporting import or actual effect. ism. and decision rules remove local teachers'. let us recognize two important charac- stakes testing programs. high-stakes tests are perceived to the great diversity of nations and cultures represented in our schools. and it turns to stand. competition for dwindling resulting desire very well: school resources. least for the present. standards. at is a sense that we have lost control of edu. correlations between teacher judgments of dated. we are bom. and the need for external verification of educational standards. (pp. especially since and learning process. high. 1984). be scientific because they produce a numer- dictable and the uncontrollable factors to ical score." They want promises and prescrip. greater pres- Coupled with increased social acceptance of tige. and basic. barded with demands for a "common core" parents' or principals' influence in educa- at least of information. The public is seeking some exter. not whim and political clout. Certainly there are better and About 70% of the people polled by Gallup often more valid ways to measure behavior also thought that the local schools should and to make important decisions about not be given sole responsibility for policing pupils. fair because they are standardized be taken into account. educational resources and credentials and 6-7) the social benefits that are believed to flow from them (i. the results of state-mandated.7 307 . high-stakes tests. and politicization are testimonials. and better jobs) is based on merit and testing to insure industrial product safety performance. we are afflicted more across all pupils and school districts. State- Even as we become increasingly aware of mandated. as tests. of the commonness of the common schools track highways with one-way signs leading and the perception that the distribution of unswervingly to some kind of success. The latest Gallup Poll of Education ments in and of themselves. they are fairly trivial instru- tests.

stand- scale. grad. similar preparation for life. mastery. such studies have attained these desired outcomes or are based on asking teachers to discriminate schooling. proficiency in basic skills. among pupils on a five. tively in contemporary society. and so on. grams. symbolically potent images. academic standards. The language associated with an a symbol of the constructs. of the language used to characterize an in- Madaus. The tests supply far beyond its inherent worth or meaning. Words like these At first blush it is difficult to find fault with command attention and support. tion. what the high-stakes tests are actually meas- If state-mandated. particular methods and procedures that goes mandated. someone who is against competence for— entiations. dated. It holds out the promise of oric makes it important to insure that pupils knowledgeable. High-stakes testing programs do not ards. certified. uring by people who are reacting to the tional attainments and if they provide little symbolic richness of the language used to new information about test takers. Teachers can make such differ. such an intent. pose the test. innovation is important in helping it achieve Consider the language used by the Cali- social consensus and acceptance. but in a In state-mandated. functional literacy. especially for novation confers a status on the innovation's the type of differentiation sought from state. after all. & Airasian. and more re. high-stakes testing programs helps uated. the ter- Tests as symbols of important educational minology we use makes the innovation itself constructs. For most thing apart from the tests themselves and people a so-called "Functional Literacy the information they provide makes them Test" or "Survival Skills Test" symbolizes desired by the public. produce information that like competence and standards conjure up is perfectly isomorphic with teacher percep. high-stakes tests are uring and what they are assumed to be meas- one-shot. high-stakes tests. 25 basic math items that may actually com- order. and few politi- require such fine distinctions among pupils. high-stakes tests that goes far beyond the 25 vocabulary and are perceived to represent: external control. The rhetoric of such testing programs nia [should] acquire the knowledge. and typ." Such lan- cellence. cently. high-stakes senior high schools to adopt standards of testing programs are no exception. school graduation to these standards: "Pu- tended to strike a responsive chord with the pils attending the public schools in Califor- public. or functional literacy. of course. is often politically beneficial to do. as it acteristics.Peter W. cians or school board members would be but instead seek to differentiate the most likely to state in public that they are not in extreme 10 to 15% of poor learners from favor of such constructs. high-stakes testing pro- manner that is perceived to be more objec. is their peers. 1974). When we name or describe the ments. The rhet. Airasian range (Brophy & Good. that are socially desirable and complex. That something is an array of competencies and proficiencies what the state-mandated. language can be found in bills of all states. characterize the testing program. Language fornia State Legislature in 1980. skills. heavily relies on constructs such as compe.or six-point rating It is hard to be against competence. largely redundant information. the symbolic richness the two sources of information (Kellaghan. guage is not unique to California. there is often a confusion between tive and fair than school-based judgments. and confidence required to function effec- tence. common standards. incompetence? The language of state-man- demically unprepared to be promoted. survival skills. some. small sample measures of educa. and tied high ically are encased in language that is in. however. What. and sanctions for poor performance. when it sets the perceptions of and expectations for passed State Bill 3408 requiring junior and the innovation. essence of an innovation with constructs The tests are symbols of these desired char. unbiased judg. State-mandated. there is substantial agreement between Too often. Although tests crystalize public acceptance because words do not. 1982). they know which pupils are aca. ex. confident pupils successfully 308 . cultural literacy. basic skills.

rary society. such as the imum competency test will be administered. at a level that captures the richness and Tests as moral symbols. So. and desired 309 . student will be granted a diploma in Califor. used a variety of Finally." Regardless of the particular Tests. is it suf. Airasian. Can interpretation of this finding was that schools teach confidence? What exactly is schools don't make a difference and an enor- confidence? How much is too much and mous amount of debate over the ineffective- how much is too little? What of the pupil ness of schools ensued from this interpreta- who demonstrates cognitive proficiency but tion (Madaus.. in which letter? And if this distinction is the intended they concluded that "school brings little in- one. performance on that test will symbolize score becomes a symbol of the broader con- for most Californians the degree to which a struct it was designed to measure. results of the test. 1978. & Kellaghan. ciety? Contemporary society will not be con. al. It knows between knowledge and skills? Is knowledge only that a functional literacy test or a min- a familiarity with basic facts. Envi. what skills and knowledge are outcome measures to assess pupil perform- required to function effectively in contem. Jencks. al. published Equal- a tax form or writing a coherent business ity of Educational Opportunity. the terminol. for example. ings it associated with school achievement. and names we give tests and the constructs that confidence to function effectively in con. the scores domains that finally are measured by the pupils get on tests. knowl. they are intended to assess serve as powerful temporary society. facts to real-world situations like filling out In 1966. skills. control. In lieu of such an analysis. and confidence required to function achievement created debate and soul search- today may be quite different from what is ing. which described what actually was meas- ogy used to describe this early version of a ured. The test nia. 325). high-stakes testing programs. Coleman et. the construct verbal ability. while skills are applications of these that the test is desirable. are we confident that schools can or fluence to bear on a child's achievement that should teach such applications to all pupils? is independent of his background and gen- More to the point. and school achievement. the pupil possesses the "knowledge. multiplication tables or rules of punctua. 1980). high-stakes testing program school achievement and a status and inter- is seductive: "knowledge. ability test. In addition to complexity most people will read into the symbolizing order. al. In interpreting the results of the Cole- required in 10 years. What actually is measured sion the characteristics of a pupil who fulfills is confused with what the language of the this expectation. ferred on the verbal ability test. testing program suggests is being measured. in a outcomes were assessed by a general verbal society that is changing constantly. pretation that was not warranted was con- dence to function effectively in contempo. functional literacy. School all people in all contexts? Moreover. however. is the language eral social context" (p." It goes without saying and persuasive social symbols for state-man- that the test will not assess such functioning dated. The common used in the latter portion of the law. became confused with the construct state-mandated. is the distinction ture of the content being tested. excellence. and this seems to be enough to convince it tion. man study. State-Mandated Testing carrying out their chosen social roles. Little wonder that the conclusion that temporary in 10 years. What. and more particularly. ance. make concrete abstract test used to determine whether or not a terms like competence. and the skills. schools don't make a difference in pupils' edge. Consider more fully the language of the Often the public doesn't even know the na- law. the measure used in the main analyses porary society? Is there a universal norm of was a single measure of general verbal ability effective functioning that can be applied to (Brimer et. which came to symbolize for the ficient and desirable to set one's goals on American public the broad domain of learn- functioning effectively in contemporary so. lacks "confidence"? Although Coleman et. 1972). skills. and confi.

regardless of their current level of perceived to be motivators of hard work. not for them­ perceived not only as a measure of hard selves. In a sense. and punishment for sample of adults was asked. learning will take place. The mere The results of the most recent Gallup Poll presence of tests in schools provides psychic of Education (Gallup & Clark. high-stakes tests are valued for what they stand for. and this is desired. 1987c. and performance would not be an incentive to punishment for the lazy (Airasian. high. Tests are But state-mandated. etc. Tests. The ing program showed local school perform­ use of high-stakes tests to allocate educa­ ance to be higher or lower than comparable tional benefits and credentials harkens back neighboring schools. A national reward for hard work. honors. they also are better. (p. As with question 2. reinforce the impres­ schools would be an incentive to try to do a sion that the emphasis in the schools is on better job. over 70% of the adults to an earlier time (real or imagined) in which polled said test results would be an incentive people attained high school diplomas.. do even better. Do you think this would thought to be worth. People to grade promotions. Tests motivate people to strive to do work and diligence in learning. Black (1982) echoes a common re­ proposed that educational achievement test frain that results be reported on a state-by-state basis. of the results attained on the test. Airasian school achievements. 245) Adults were then asked a second question: "Let's assume that the students in the local How much stronger is the belief in this public schools received higher test results accounting when the standardized test is a 310 . state-mandated. etc. particularly state. grade for their local school to improve. the tests revalue a to try to do better. badly) both at once. standardized testing offers the sion. Whether as a competitive exercise or this proposal?" Given the preceding discus­ in isolation. Do you think that this would serve social values. light on this characteristic of tests. 12% said no. "It is now being laziness. and only the stick (the disappointment of doing 14% opposed it. so that comparisons can be made between if the student must face an accounting (in schools of similar size and racial and eco­ the form of a test) of how well he or she nomic make-up. high-stakes tests with their em­ better job or not?" Again. 72% said yes. performance. higher such as hard work. Only 12% said no. Do you favor or oppose has mastered the subject. the high Regardless of whether the results of a test­ school diploma. 1981). 1977). it should not be suφrising that 70% of carrot (the satisfaction of doing well) and the sample favored the proposal. and teacher certifi­ appear to perceive some value inherent in cations in the old-fashioned way: They the test or testing process that is independent earned them (Armbruster. higher test performance than com­ This reaction centers on testing as a symbol parable schools would be an incentive to do of traditional social and educational values an even better job. reward for effort. the more the rewards of ed­ test scores than students in comparable ucation (e. teaching certificate. phasis on common standards and sanctions lower test performance than comparable for poor performance.) are schools elsewhere. 1987) shed satisfaction to the patrons of high standards. The more "Let's assume that the students in the public these values are reflected in school practices schools in this community received lower and programs. diplomas. Most of the public prizes these The final question posed to adults was the traditional values and would like to see more reverse situation to the second question: of them reflected in its schools.g. Rafferty (1985) has shown that as an incentive for the local schools to do an in nontechnical writings there is a common­ even better job or not?" Seventy-two percent ality of reaction to tests and examinations. than students in comparable schools else­ stakes tests also symbolize a set of more basic where. Eraut. earning credentials by demonstrating good lower test scores would not be an incentive performance. encourage the local schools to try to do a mandated. debased educational currency. said yes.Peter W.

society. thereby directing attention away would argue strongly that daily recitation of from other. school day. trial will convince the public that much is being by fire. The jury items it contains. The situation is somewhat done to remedy recognized educational analogous to the issue of school prayer. needed remedies. grams. dimension of tests relates to the way that the public defines and measures educational ex- Conclusion cellence. and learning. ing programs. People follow both the Dow they strike a responsive chord in the public Jones and test scores avidly in order to gauge at large and this response helps explain the the financial and educational progress of widespread and speedy adoption of an in. rates on high-stakes tests are becoming the There is little question. mization necessary to justify their wide. In state-mandated. social and educational values that the public A second consequence of the symbolic wants in the school environment. That is not the point. scores by a public that confuses the construct mandated. stock average. Given a different extant culture. high-stakes tests is that their mere existence ing: hard work. test scores and passing is still out on the effects of such programs. and so on. it would not be surprising assessed by the tests may be less important if the symbolic dimensions of tests produced than the fact that a test of some kind is being some effects of their own. If this line of reasoning is correct. state. symbols of a broad range of administrative. an important perceptual impact on the pub- state-mandated. tral control and sanctions for poor perform- and basic. high-stakes testing pro. will have a major though poor. of the actual impact that state-mandated. Because so much is read into test As educational reform mechanisms. academic. high-stakes test with real grams might have been considerably less consequences for test takers? warmly endorsed. These ance. highly respected in American education before about 1979. tests symbolize order and control. focus on For its advocates. Few problems. novation that had virtually no track record Tests are socially valid. that the educational equivalent to the Dow Jones testing programs are powerful symbolically. Given their potent symbol- The test becomes a surrogate or symbol for ism. tests represent broad lations. it is Because of the public's current faith in likely that the particular content domain tests and testing. This perceptual impact underlies 311 . State-Mandated Testing state-mandated. high-stakes tests have on pupils. teachers. values that it is reassuring to believe are The symbolic role of testing often makes it present in the school environment to which difficult to separate discussion of educa- the young are sent to learn and be nurtured. they are likely to have reform. the values people perceive in the act of test. a When tests have the added features of cen- focus on important educational outcomes. however. regardless and this endorsement provided the legiti. substitute for other necessary impact on pupils' moral and ethical devel. we can expect that their symbolic im- values are endorsed by the extant culture portance will be heightened. in and of itself. quite apart from administered and rewards or punishments the educational effects produced by the test- are doled out on the basis of performance. and moral virtues in our society. and meaningful actions to improve schools opment or demeanor. nose to the grindstone. tional policy and standards from public re- In the same manner. Also. as noted earlier. an inherent danger in state-mandated. high-stakes testing pro. Thus. lic at large. high-stakes testing programs may label of the test with the more narrow set of not be as powerful as many expect. the recitation of the the symbolism of the new testing programs Twenty-third Psalm or a moment of silence directs attention away from needed consid- symbolizes a host of religious and moral eration of the technical quality of the tests. traditional moral values. The symbolic the Twenty-third Psalm or the observance richness of high-stakes tests creates the dan- of a moment of silence at the start of the ger that such tests can become a convenient. spread adoption in the name of educational and the curriculum.

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