Truth in Testing

Politicians, reporters, real estate agents, and a sizeable percentage of the public at large, it seems, would rather know how students scored on high-stakes tests than whether our youngsters have actually learned anything.

After all, who has time to observe students, review their work, or talk to them about what they’ve learned? We’re busy people.

That’s why test results are so important to us— “all-important,” some would say. And that’s precisely why I’m alarmed.

I’m shocked at the seeming indifference with which our nation has reacted to the unambiguous evidence of a massive failure rate on a high-stakes test in Illinois.

Here are the unsettling facts: Fully 70 percent of the students tested at the high school in Dunlap, Ill., failed their high-stakes test.

As reported in detail on Page 12 of this issue, 10 students submitted to a polygraph test to determine if they had been drinking at a party in violation of school rules. Only three passed the test.

A 30 percent success rate on a test of this importance is clearly unacceptable. It underscores the need for remedial education and massive test preparation.

Of course, when test results are disappointing, it’s entirely predictable that some will begin to challenge the test itself rather than the performance of the students.

In a commentary in the Washington Times, one lie-detection critic had this to say: “Polygraph ‘testing’ may be useful in eliciting admissions from naive and gullible subjects, but it has no scientific basis.”

Some naysayers, in fact, argue that polygraph-test scores are meaningless. The American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, for instance, maintain that polygraphs yield little more than a 50-50 chance of accuracy, with a false-positive rate that could be anywhere from 1 percent to 20 percent.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on the admission of lie-detector results in military courts, a decision that has been followed by most state courts.

“There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable,” the court said in its decision.

“To this day, the scientific community remains extremely polarized about the reliability of polygraph techniques,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the decision. “There is simply no way to know in a particular case whether a polygraph examiner’s conclusion is accurate.”

Such quibbling aside, our economic competitors around the world clearly prepare certain elite members of their society to pass lie-detector tests with flying colors. They send the favored few to special “Intelligence Schools” where they hone their polygraph-testing skills.

The techniques are not unknown in this country. Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the courts in September 1997, the FBI’s foremost scientific expert on polygraphs, Supervisory Special Agent Drew C. Richardson, testified that “anyone can be taught to beat this type of polygraph exam in a few minutes.”

We are a society based on equity and inclusion. Other nations might restrict polygraph preparation to the elite few, but we must approach this challenge in typical American fashion, providing opportunity for all.

If an FBI expert testifies anyone can learn to pass the polygraph test, let’s be sure all our students receive the help they need.

Failing a polygraph test in school can sharply undermine our youngsters’ self-esteem. We want our students to be proud and confident. That just might mean giving them the tools they need to pass those tests.

If we’re going to start giving polygraph tests to students in our schools, let’s be sure we also give them the preparation they need to succeed.

Would I be lying if I said a great nation can afford to do no less? You probably don’t need a polygraph to determine that.

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