"National tests and standards can be a positive step toward higher student achievement, but by themselves they do not result in student learning," says Marilyn Haring, who is also a professor of counseling and development who specializes in education reform. "Test scores will merely provide markers for comparing states and districts, which in turn can be used to identify necessary reforms."
She says the greatest challenge is developing a national exam that everyone can agree on.
"As a society, we have deep philosophical differences as to what students should know," Haring explains. "We are also deeply divided on what students should be able to do and how we should teach them to do 'that.' For instance, on some level all Americans agree that children should be able to read and write, but there is significant disagreement as to whether those skills should involve the ability to analyze and think critically. This concern generally comes from those who question what values would be applied to those processes."
Haring also points out that even when there is consensus on a basic premise like "all children should be able to read," there continues to be some disagreement on how to reach the goal. Consider the phonics vs. whole language debate. The state legislature in Ohio recently addressed the issue by mandating that every college student preparing to become an elementary school teacher take three courses in phonics.
"I think the Ohio legislature has gone overboard in requiring three courses where the content probably justifies one course at most," Haring says. "And what's going to be eliminated? Perhaps a course in children's literature, which can be an important way of encouraging youngsters to read for pleasure."
Purdue's elementary education majors are required to take two courses that include some instruction in phonics.
Haring says it's clear that Americans no longer can say with one voice what an education should be or how it should be achieved.
"The 'three-R's' are a vast oversimplification that cannot be defended as our national goals, and drill is no longer the way to teach students and keep them in school," Haring says. "However, the discussion of national testing indicates that we're making progress on agreeing that education is very important, and that seems like a start in the right direction."
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