IBM CEO Lou Gerstner’s comments of March 14, 2002 (The Tests We Know We Need) attempted to convince NY Times readers that the conclusion of Public Agenda’s most recent poll was incontrovertible gospel. The message being: high-stakes tests are the medicine America’s public schools require and indications of a “backlash” fomented by parents and educators have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, Mr. Gerstner would have us believe that precious few Americans find any real fault with the testing scheme designed by and lobbied on the behalf of the only possible winner in this Darwinian game – corporate America. The poll's findings and Mr. Gerstner’s comments demand both concession and critique.


America’s public schools were never as bad as the now infamous Nation At Risk report held in 1983 that frequently ranked American students below their counterparts across the globe. Rather than rehashing the shortcomings of the Nation At Risk report, we simply point to Exhibit A: the incredible and resilient wealth-generating machine that is the American economy which grew beyond all expectations since the issuance of the report, an economy which remains the envy and role model for the industrial world. The workers and managers of this economy were primarily educated in public schools. What redeeming quality was it within our country that allowed us to produce so much wealth while we supposedly have or had such lousy schools coast to coast?


But Mr. Gerstner and his fellow testocrats do deserve a concession from some of us; a bit of history first. In the early 20th century, states wrested a fair amount of control over the focus, the curriculum of public schools. Municipalities were left with the brick and mortar responsibility while the state took over the education of teachers and, by varying degrees, the ownership and control over public schools. The pattern established in the birthplace of the public school “system”, Boston, was replicated across the country. Education became less of a matter among community members, teachers, and students and more of a routinized, systematic affair among state legislators, the local and state business community, and students. These actions were followed by school consolidation – a necessary move to make the schools more “efficient” as well as to facilitate the systemization of the educational process. . “Accountability” shifted from being entirely local to increasingly distant as centrally located educational “experts” took over. The result was fairly predictable – community involvement and vigilance tended to decline as real control slipped away


Schools became essentially accountable to three sets of stakeholders: parents, a frequently absentee manager in the form of the state, and whatever sense of professionalism a group of teachers and administrators had about their school. To whatever degree any particular set of stakeholders “checked out”, the quality of education a school imparted to its students declined. When all three failed, the school failed.


So now we come to the intersection where high-stakes testing has made its one and only contribution to American education. When all three stakeholders have ceased being vigilant, renewed vigilance on the part of the state, through the instrument of high-stakes testing, can provide a momentary lift for the school that springs to respond to the challenge. Mediocre teachers are either let go or, more likely, are transferred into areas that are not subject to a state test. Teachers dust off the course of study and teach something other than their favorite topics. In those cases we must concede to Mr. Gerstner and his testing brethren that they have done America’s children a service. But that’s as much applause as they deserve. Public Agenda’s recent poll on the matter of testing, as well as Mr. Gerstner’s spin, warrant comment.


First, there is the issue of the poll’s methodology. What appears at first glance to be expressly fair is not. That is, the parents and students polled were from a national sample. Parents and students who have not confronted high-stakes tests in full bloom, such as they are in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida, among others, are unlikely to have the allergic reaction parents and students have had in those states. Bottom line: a national sample is necessarily a diluted sample. The backlash that both Public Agenda and Mr. Gerstner so casually discount, really does exist in states with high-stakes tests and is attested to by the regular flow of headlines available at as well as surveys of parents, teachers, and students in high-stakes testing states. The number one issue for teachers this past weekend at the North Carolina Association of Educators’ convention was high-stakes testing.


The second problem with the methodology is that neither the parents of dropouts nor students who had dropped out were asked their opinion of the new reforms. We are talking at least 7% of white students, 13% of black students, and 27% of Hispanic students. North Carolina’s dropout rate jumped 32% from 1998 to 1999. How much this is due to high-stakes tests we can only speculate.


Mr. Gerstner offers four significant assertions: that students, properly motivated through a threat of no diploma, can achieve substantial increases in pass rates as demonstrated in increased pass rate of Massachusetts’ exit exam; that most students do the minimum to get by; that we must “close the gap” between white students and minorities; and that the poll’s respondents do not want to “go back to the way things were” before testing.


In order: the untold story in Massachusetts is the enronization of the numbers. That is, retention rates for ninth graders across the state jumped dramatically from 1999 to 2000. From the Providence Journal: “Brockton, 17.6 percent to 32.1 percent; Chelsea, 36.3 percent to 41.4 percent; Fall River, 11.8 percent to 25 percent; Lynn, 10.6 percent to 14.1 percent; North Adams, 0 percent to 26 percent.” The administrative strategy is transparent. Students considered by administrators to be in danger of failing the tenth grade exam and thus adding tarnish to the school’s image were simply retained in the ninth grade. Who won?


We agree with Mr. Gerstner that most students do the minimum to get by. Many educators see high-stakes tests as the chief culprit in fostering a “good enough to pass” mentality among students who are capable of far more. The new ESEA threatens to exacerbate this dynamic.


In terms of “closing the gap”, we all want that to happen. But the real investment required doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. States are spending money for test prep but they aren’t, as a rule, investing in the infrastructure of poor communities where low achievement is pervasive and long-standing. The new ESEA has been gutted of much of the promised dollars for urban schools. Too often, “closing the gap,” means more adept game playing. A technique born in Brazosport, Texas is finding favor across the country where school districts want to “close the gap” on the cheap. The method is simple: lower the threshold to pass, heavily script the lesson for the teacher, and primarily use assessment tools throughout the school year that mimic the format of the high-stakes test. Voila! The gap is nearly closed. Or so the consultants would have you believe.


And finally, we agree with Mr. Gerstner again – we don’t want to go back to situations where the stakeholders are detached and students are allowed to languish without challenge and without hope. But high-stakes tests are a failed and a failing option. Our rejection of them doesn’t mean we want to “go back.” Let’s just go forward with the knowledge that “accountability” and real reform are more complicated and demanding of effort of all stakeholders than the solution of high-stakes tests.