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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Truth-in-Test Law Bodes and Ill Wind for SATs, ACTs

THE CONTROVERSY over the validity and fairness of multiple-choice standardized tests finally has become full-blown. After several years of growing criticism of the test­ing industry, headed by the giant Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., a breakthrough occurred for the critics in July when New York Gov. Hugh Carey signed into law the Truth-In-Testing legislation.

ETS had launched a mas­sive lobbying effort against this bill in May and June. Little by way of resources or deceptive characterizations of the legislation was spared. A major corporate law firm in Albany was hired. Mailings were sent to school officials and ETS-paid consultants around the state and country urging them to lobby the leg­islature. ETS told them the bill would raise the cost of the tests to students, would work against the interests of reli­gious and handicapped stu­dents and possibly would end the administration of such tests in New York State.

Supporters of the bill were quick to rebut each of ETS’ positions. Using some of the material from our five-year study of ETS (soon to be re­leased), they showed that the testing company’s own inter­nal studies rebutted its public claims in Albany.

Here’s what the new law will do. Questions and correct answers for post-secondary or professional school admis­sions tests must be disclosed 30 days after the students have been told their scores. Test company information concerning test validity, score recalculation, formula reli­ability and cultural and eco­nomic class bias also must be made public. Exempted from disclosure are questions in­cluded in the ungraded sec­tions of the tests which are used for equating the test to other versions of the same test. ETS lobbyists in Albany repeatedly tried to undermine the bill in education circles by falsely stating that “equating questions” would become public.

An informal coalition for truth-in-testing composed of student, teacher, minority, parent and labor groups car­ried the bill through to pas­sage. Led by the New York Public Interest Research Group, they marshaled an impressive array of witnesses and written endorsements. Dr. Vito Perrone, president of the National Consortium on Testing, of which ETS is a member, wrote that the bill “deserves support and should not be permitted to falter through inaccurate informa­tion.”

Other states are consider­ing similar disclosure re­quirements and a bill now is being heard in the Congress to make the disclosure stan­dards for these tests operate nationwide. These standards are essentially a right-to­know and right-to-analyze process. Until now, only the test manufacturers had the information to interpret these tests. Now students, parents, educators and others will be able to make their own judg­ments.

Sunlight, as one jurist put it, makes a good disinfectant. When ETS said the Albany bill would raise test costs, ETS’ own internal studies showed that only 5% of a student’s Scholastic Aptitude Test fee goes into test question prepa­ration, while about 25% goes to the profit margin of ETS and its clients. Test questions take about an hour to develop, – according to one ETS official. ETS’ rival, American College Testing, agrees that the cost issue was, in the private words of one ACT employee,

Indeed, because the test questions and answers soon will be available, students who cannot afford the expen­sive commercial cram courses will be able to benefit from these disclosures in their practice self-testing.

All these disputes over test­ing — and they will increase during the coming academic year across the campuses of America — must not becloud the major issues. The testing industry has tremendous power to affect the schooling and career opportunities of many people every year. ETS, for example, has more cus­tomers than both GM and Ford combined. The power to define intelligence and apti­tude is awesome. But when this power is combined with the wildly exaggerated signi­ficance given these test scores by admissions offices, a test­ing tyranny becomes a reality for too many students. Their self-confidence often is shat­tered and they internalize the test score results in the way they view their own abilities and potential.

Certainly it would help stu­dents to realize that these tests do not measure deter­mination, judgment, ideal­ism, or creativity — the human attributes responsible for human progress. Such an awareness will lead to a more comprehensive consumer evaluation of the testmakers themselves. Such scrutiny should lead to a mind libera­tion movement that breaks the secret straitjackets placed on the futures of mil­lions of young Americans.