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Pencils, piccolos and the tyranny of test-scores

Local educators are wondering how the debacle over online testing of students will affect those ever-so-scrutinized school test scores this year. Because of a dispute between the Oregon Department of Education and the contractor that conducts the state's online standardized tests, students must use paper and pencil for state assessment tests for the rest of the school year.

For the past several years, Oregon students have taken the tests by computer. Some educators think that reverting to paper could affect test scores negatively, which means schools could see their overall scores decline.

We're not sure whether scores will drop, increase or hold steady. But if the method of taking the test does affect scores, it will only serve to point out the folly of relying too heavily on standardized tests to judge a school's performance.

What should matter most is how much learning occurs in a classroom.

The tyranny of test scores played out earlier this week in the Forest Grove School District, when parents with students in the upper elementary school's band and orchestra began hearing rumors that the acclaimed music program was in danger of being scrapped.

As is often the case, those rumors were wildly exaggerated, but had a kernel of truth. As Associate Editor Nancy Townsley reports in this week's paper, district officials are concerned that under the current arrangement, students at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School are routinely pulled from academic classes to go to band and orchestra.

No one disputes that music instruction has a place in our schools. Indeed, research shows a correlation between the study of music and success in both math and language arts.

The problem is, the federal No Child Left Behind laws are quite content to leave behind music. Because band and orchestra aren't included on standardized tests, students abilities aren't measured. And, in this era of über-accountability, if it can't be measured, it must not have any value.

Recent events offer a good reminder that standardized tests results are influenced by demographics, cultural influences (including exposure to music) and even such things as disputes between bureaucrats and testing companies. As such, they are but one imperfect measure of educational progress.