A typical day in my life starts like this: I sit in a stack on
the book shelf. Suddenly, I am whisked away and handed to someone who looks as
startled by me as I am by them. I am a TABE (the Test of Adult Basic Education) and I have
become, according to one adult education professional, the "industry standard." Lots of people
know my name. Some love me and some hate me. I guess you can't please all the people all the
The TABE is a battery of multiple-choice tests. According
to the publisher, the purpose of the battery is "not to test specific life skills, but to test basic skills
in the context of life skills tasks" (CTB/McGraw Hill, 1987). There is a vocabulary section and a
reading comprehension section, which together give a composite reading score. A locator test is
available which consists of 25 multiple-choice items and 25 multiple-choice
computation items ranging from whole numbers skills to decimals. The locator requires 37
minutes to administer (for both vocabulary and arithmetic sections). There are also two math
sections and two writing sections. Programs vary a great deal on which sections (or how many sections) of the TABE are given.
The reading section is almost always one of the sections included.
You can't please all the people all the time. The same could be said for any type of
assessment. The question for me as an adult educator and staff development person is does this
test meet my needs, the needs of my program, and the needs of my learners?
To begin to address these questions, I look at my own experi-ence as an adult educator. I have
been able to gain a fairly accurate, general idea of a learner's reading comprehension level by
using the TABE. Someone might come to my class on any given day with a TABE score of 5.5,
for example. This gives me an idea of where to start.
Still, I have learned over the years to take that score with a rather large grain of salt. When I
talk to my learners about their scores on the TABE (which they are almost always anxious to find
out), I tell them that this score only gives us a ballpark figure and that we will both know better
after a few weeks of working together, at which "level," for want of a better word, they are.
We also talk about the value of knowing a level. We discuss how it can give us a general idea
about how far they might be from being able to tackle the GED (which is very often their first,
and sometimes only, stated goal).
My career in adult education had almost always involved the wearing of at least two different
hats. One of the hats that I have worn is that of the Practitioner Inquiry Coordinator. In that role,
I worked with teachers to see the worlds of our classrooms through the eyes of an anthropologist.
We observed carefully. We tried to answer the question: What is going on in this classroom? We
tried to identify and question the under-lying assumptions in our teaching. Sometimes we made
changes based on that.
A counselor I spoke with told me that the TABE is the "industry standard." I asked how long
the program had been using the TABE. He told me that they had been using the TABE "since
1973 when I got here."
As a teacher who has taught in a number of different programs and settings, and as a staff
developer who has contact with many different teachers, I then considered the question: How is
the TABE used? What is it used for? Many programs seem to use the TABE as an initial assessment tool
to determine placement in one of three (typically ABE, pre-GED, and GED) programs. Some
programs administer the TABE on a regular basis to determine movement to higher levels.
Some funders do this, too. Some mandate intervals at which the TABE must be taken. In one such
case, I had several students who needed to take the TABE after every 150 hours of class time (about every
two to three months). Some of these students had taken the same form of the test a few times even before
they got to my class.
Some students told me that their goal for class was to reach an eighth grade level on the
TABE so that they could enter a particular job training program. In some cases, a great deal was
riding on this parti-cular test score. For these students, passing the test (meaning scoring at the
eighth grade level) became their priority (understandably so). So. I learned rather quickly in my
career that the TABE could sometimes make or break a student's potential career path.
A study published in 1995 by the National Center on Adult Literacy (NCAL) entitled, When
Less is More: A Comparative Analysis for Placing Students in Adult Literacy Classes, concluded
that "a test as brief as the TABE locator could predict place-ments as well as the complete group
of reading tests." The following sums up their recommendations:
"Attempts to achieve extremely high accuracy in placement should be tempered by a
consideration of the small number of placement levels usually available.. Overall, it may be
concluded that less testing may be more valuable to both students and adult literacy programs.
Less time on testing means less cost for testing. Perhaps more im-portantly, learners often have
distaste for and fear of standardized tests. By cutting back on testing and moving toward a
self-assessment model, programs may stimulate greater motivation and satisfaction among the
clients they serve."
Based on my experience, I would recommend we consider
the following questions:
- When and why did we all decide that the TABE was the " industry standard"?
- Does the TABE help us find out the information we are seeking to know?
- What do we seek to know from using the TABE?
- To what extent is the TABE successful in placing students in the correct classes?
- Is there flexibility in our programs when the TABE results are not successful in placing students in the correct classes?
- Are we using the TABE in a way that is consistent with the intended purposes of the test?
- Does the TABE help learners identify needs and/or levels?
It is possible that the TABE is indeed the very best test to use to determine this kind of
information. If we take an inquiry approach to this issue, however, and examine the underlying
assumptions, we may discover important information that can help us all better assess the needs
of our learners and our programs.
If so much is going to ride on the results of a standardized test, perhaps we should take a moment
to step back and think about the pur-pose of a standardized test, what it can and cannot tell us,
and if indeed this is the most appropriate test to use. Inquiring minds want to know.
Cathy Coleman is the Curriculum Frameworks Coordinator at the SABES Central Regional Support Center. She can be reached by
e-mail at email@example.com
This article originally appeared in
Adventures in Assessment, Volume 10 (December 1997), SABES/World Education, Boston,
MA, Copyright 1998.