The real test of testing is . . .

While Utah prepares to release the first results of a statewide test for students in fifth, eighth and 11th grades, the furor over the validity of tests continues to swirl.Utah's Legislature mandated the statewide tests last winter as a way to get more accountability from Utah schools. At the same time, organizations such as the National Center for Fair and Open Testing are finding fault with nationally normed tests used in the nation's schools and especially with college entrance exams.

Even such prestigious tests as the one on which National Merit Scholarships are based have been brought into question. The predominance of white male winners led to charges that the test is biased in their favor.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test taken by many seniors has been revised to address some of the criticisms, but the critics continue to lambaste it.

The federal government is forging full steam ahead to develop yet another battery of tests - along with accompanying achievement standards - through the National Assessment of Educational Progress. These are expected to provide yet another measure by which states can be compared.

Without question, testing has its drawbacks as a measure of how well a child does or how well one school, district or state stacks up against another. But, despite the weaknesses, it is one way to see where students stand.

The trick, it appears, is to keep test results in context and not allow the drive for good scores to make cheaters of teachers and administrators. If teachers engage in "teaching to the test," the results will undoubtedly be inflated and not honest.

Utah's experiment in statewide testing has the potential for abuse if the results are not used as intended. If there is an honest evaluation of the test outcomes, in context of reasonable expectations, the state could benefit. If it becomes a "popularity" contest, there will be some predictable results.

The State Office of Education is making an effort to create a context, to provide a degree of fairness in comparing schools. Schools will be divided into "bands" with comparable socioeconomic factors.

The bands will be devised based on the number of children in a school who are eligible for free or reduced lunch - one indicator of the socioeconomic condition of a neighborhood - or how many are in families receiving Aid to Dependent Children.

Many factors affect the quality of education in a school. Endless combinations of aptitude and attitude create unique situations in every school. Children from relatively affluent homes where parents are highly educated in general do better than children from stressed homes where education is low-priority. In schools with high parent involvement, results outpace those in schools where parents have little involvement.

Some schools that appear to be doing poorly may, in fact, be doing very well with the student population they are charged with educating.

There is no reason to believe that children from poor homes are intrinsically less intelligent than those from rich homes. But the capacity to learn is only one of many factors in actually learning. Ideally, Utah would use the data from statewide testing to enrich resources and provide special help to those schools that fall short because of socioeconomic factors.

As the results of Utah's statewide tests come out over the next few weeks, thousands of comparisons will be made. They should be made fairly and used to improve the system. They will serve no useful purpose if they are used only to praise schools at the top end of the spectrum that in reality may not be doing as well as they might, nor if they merely penalize schools at the low end of the spectrum that really are doing well.

Parents and others who are interested in the results should contact their own school to discuss in detail the meaning of the test scores. They should push for betterment where it is called for.

Over time, more data will accumulate and the state will be able to compare schools with themselves from one year to the next - a more valid assessment of how well they perform.