The Magazine

THIS ISN'T ONLY A TEST

Jul 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 44 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Third, and most worrisome, the two subject-matter committees, for reading and math, include only educators and experts; there's not a "consumer" or employer in the lot. And while each group contains some wellregarded scholars and teachers, each is also tilted toward today's dominant educationist bias: the theory of teaching and learning known as "constructivism." That's the approach in which children are expected to create their own meaning and teachers are supposed to "facilitate" learning instead of directly instructing their pupils in worthwhile knowledge. Constructivism is heavy on " critical thinking" and "problem solving" but light on specific knowledge and basic skills. It doesn't so much care whether you know something as whether you can look it up. It doesn't judge certain information to be important and certain books to be best, but, rather, partakes of fashionable academic relativism; It's friendly to "whole language" reading, wary of systematic phonics; it asks children to guesstimate the solutions to math problems and discounts the importance of correct answers. Tests grounded in this philosophy will be applauded by the ed-school professoriate and the deconstructionists, but they won't test the sorts of things that a governor like Engler -- or, once, Clinton -- really wants the children of his state to know.

Am I reading too much into lists of panelists? Probably not. People I respect in math and reading who have eyeballed these lists use words like " disaster" to describe the tests and standards that they expect to emerge.

If national testing is headed that way, the country would be better off without it. Congress should apply the brakes before a wreck occurs. Then maybe -- just maybe -- let a different driver take a turn at the wheel. If a fully independent version of the board I chaired in the 1980s were put in full charge, the risk of crashing would be reduced. Alternatively, the whole idea might be privatized, turned into a commercial (or philanthropic) testing program that picks up Clinton's basic concept but with no government entanglement or federal funds. We still need a means to compare achievement across state borders. But it's worth doing only if the twin tar babies can be avoided. The one thing indisputably worse than no national tests would be bad national tests.