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>Editorial: This is a test

>Editorial: This is a test

Monday, March 3, 2008IT’S EVERY student’s fantasy: The teacher who conveys relevant information all semester, guides meaningful class discussion, reinforces learning through regular reviews – and then never forces the issue of how much education is actually occurring by imposing a test.

That’s the dream that Northern Valley Regional High School officials dashed last year when they joined a growing number of North Jersey districts requiring that students in Advanced Placement classes take standardized exams to get credit.

They expected the change to be difficult, and they haven’t been disappointed. With the end of the school year approaching, a crowd of more than 50 students and parents packed a meeting in Demarest last week to protest the change, which affects many of the affluent district’s graduating seniors. Previously, students could take the courses without taking the exams, which are prepared by the College Board in New York.

Parents don’t appreciate the cost – $84 per test – which can mount quickly when a top-achieving senior is enrolled in three, four or more AP classes. Students, not surprisingly, aren’t reveling in the prospect of an extended exam period in the final throes of the school year. And both generations question the value of the test itself, since some competitive colleges no longer grant college credit for AP work.

Fortunately, Northern Valley officials haven’t backed down from their decision: Students who don’t take the AP exam fail the course. Draconian as it may seem, it is the only way districts can validate the merit of AP programs.

What’s been lost in the discussion is that it’s not just the students taking the exam who are being tested. It’s the entire education system, and standardized tests provide a tool for measuring success.

College officials need an objective standard for judging high school performance. As New Jersey’s annual school report cards demonstrate, not all high schools are equal, and the grades given locally are often unsound barometers for judging students from different districts.

Likewise, the national ranking of a district can’t be adequately defined without a common standard for assessment. That’s an issue of vital importance to students at Northern Valley’s high schools in Demarest and Old Tappan, almost half of whom were accepted to the nation’s most competitive colleges last year.

It’s just as critical to residents of eight towns who foot the bill for the high schools and deserve to know whether the 20-plus expensive AP courses are succeeding.

All of this is undercut by a laissez-faire system that allows students to choose whether to take an exam. The number of Northern Valley students enrolled in AP courses has risen to almost 28 percent of the student body, but last year less than half of them took the exams. It’s easy to see how results can be skewed without a requirement that all students – best and worst – take the tests.

Especially in a time of budget shortfalls and increased demands for educational accountability, we can’t wait a lifetime to see how our students are performing. We need to know now, and tests are the best indicators available.

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