use of standardized aptitude tests to encourage students to apply to college was mentioned in the preceding chapter. Similarly, many of the country's leading state university systems admit all students with a minimum grade-point average, but they also enable those with averages below the cutoff to apply based on their standardized admissions test scores. This type of "second pathway" is quite commonplace. As Donald Stewart, the president of the College Board, argued in a recent letter to the New York Times, "More than 50 million college applicants have taken the SAT since 1926, and most have arrived on campus, including millions of disadvantaged students who had often been excluded in the past" (May 8, 1998).

Furthermore, policymakers, who have few instruments at their disposal to affect schools directly, are unlikely to abandon a tool potentially as powerful as tests simply because people sometimes use them badly. The challenge for the policy community, then, is to make decisions about test use that allow them to pursue their broader objectives within a constrained political environment, staying mindful of both the limitations of any given test and its capacity to influence classroom behavior and students' educational opportunities. In the remainder of this chapter, we survey the range of assessment policies and describe the political context in which contemporary debates over appropriate test use are occurring.

Testing as a Policy Instrument

Current federal, state, and local policies use student assessments for seven distinct purposes, with the same test often serving multiple functions.3 The first is aiding in instructional decisions about individual students. For example, teachers may use test results in grouping students or in identifying areas in which particular students need additional or different instruction. But some form of standardized diagnostic test is typically used as one basis for deciding whether students are eligible for services provided by a variety of programs, including those related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and state programs for students with disabilities, state and federal bilingual education programs for English-language learners, and the federal and state compensatory education programs for poor, underachieving students. Testing is thus used to

3  

Although we have cast this discussion in terms of seven distinct purposes, we do not mean to imply that this is the only way of looking at the question.



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