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High Stakes Testing and Its Effect on Education

"High stakes testing means that something important will be determined by test performance," explained Henry M. Levin, the William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, who also serves on the Board of Trustees of the Educational Testing Service.

That "something," for the student, can be promotion to the next academic grade, a high school diploma, tracking into a more or less demanding course of study, or admission to college. For the school district, it can mean the measure of success or failure of a school, the administration or its teachers.

Since 1983, when A Nation at Risk was released, the focus of education in our country has been on meeting standards that would keep us abreast of other economic powers. The report had declared U.S. schools inadequate in comparison to schools in countries like Japan and Germany, whose economies at the time were booming. More rigorous standards and a way to measure a student's mastery of that curriculum were called for.

While standardized tests have been part of education since the mid-nineteenth century, the stakes have gotten higher for educators, schools, and especially students. Today, testing has become a key element in determining how K-12 students are tracked, whether they are promoted to the next grade, their eligibility for graduation, as well as the effectiveness of schools, teachers and administrators.

The End of Social Promotion?

President Clinton, in his 1999 State of the Union address, vowed to end social promotion, promoting students to keep up with their same-age peers, and to raise the standards of education in the United States from a minimum standard to world-class standards. In doing so, he proposed that states set clear requirements for promotion and demonstrate how they help students meet them.

At least six states passed laws prohibiting social promotion after Clinton's State of the Union address. Many educators argue that promotion to a higher grade should be handled on a case-by-case basis, yet standardized tests are being used more and more to substantiate those decisions.

For example, in Chicago retention is based on test scores regardless of grades or teacher recommendation. According to the Education Writers Association, students in Chicago who could not pass the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for their grade level are sent to summer school the first time they fail. Then they are held back if they can't score within a year of the national norm. Eighth-grade students 15 and older are sent to a "transition high school" as an alternative to traditional retention.

New York City public schools administrators had all good intentions for improving student performance when they developed their high stakes retention policy. But when thousands of children were mistakenly labeled as not having made the grade on a standardized test, the new policy and the school administrators met with public criticism. The problem occurred when a testing company's errors led 8,700 students to be mistakenly assigned to summer school when their scores, which actually were above the bar set by the district, were categorized as having come in below the bar. Approximately 3,500 of those students were "unfairly" held back after not meeting the requirements of attending summer school or passing the summer school test.

While everyone agrees that it's undesirable to promote students who are not ready for the next grade, most studies show that one alternative-holding students back-is even worse, leading to lower achievement, reduced self-esteem and significantly increased dropout rates. The answer is to identify failing students early and intervene with effective after-school programs, tutoring and summer school.

Boston Public School superintendent Thomas Payzant took this into account when he created three new 15-month transition grades for low-scoring second, fifth and eighth graders. Instead of being retained, those children who score in the lowest category on the statewide MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) test will be required to attend two years of summer school and receive four hours of extra classes per week.

In the case of high school seniors, roughly half the states now require high school graduation tests, with many, including New York State, moving toward tougher tests that measure more than basic skills. For example, New York's requirements for the 2000 school year will mean that graduating seniors will have to pass a new longer and more rigorous English Regents examination or forgo receiving a diploma. By 2001, seniors will have to pass Regents exams in math, American history and government, global studies and science. These exams are tied to "world class" standards reflected in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Based on 1996 NAEP data, 38 percent of all students would fail such tests, and failure rates would be twice that in some school districts.

Making Schools and Educators Accountable

High stakes tests are not only being used to determine the promotion or retention of individual students. In Florida, results of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test will be used to grade the schools as well as students, says the Miami Herald. Parents of children in schools that fail to meet certain criteria may be offered vouchers to change their child's school. High school students who perform well enough to be in any of the top three categories earn exemption from the High School Competency Test required for graduation.

In Denver, a two-year pilot program will link teacher salary increases to improvements in student performance. Evaluation will be based on student scores on standardized tests and teacher-created tests and the teacher's continued professional development. That pilot program may lead to a permanent system of salary increases being based solely on classroom results.

The New York Times reported that New York City Public Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew also used the results of the new fourth-grade reading test, the same test for which scoring errors led thousands of children to be held back, to sanction and replace district superintendents, principals and teachers who were not performing well.

Test results are used in Nevada to determine which schools demonstrate the need for improvement, a categorization that can lead to bad publicity as well as added technical and financial resources. According to Education Week, administrators were looking into whether any of the schools that received that label might not have deserved it, after that state was found to be one of six which experienced scoring flaws.

Public Outcry vs. Public Support

In Madison, Wisconsin, lawmakers and others have successfully pushed for changes in the law requiring students to pass a rigorous exam before graduating. Behind that effort is the fear that too much emphasis on passing tests will cause teachers to focus only on material covered by the tests.

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in Albany, New York, is also fighting to scale back the new, more stringent graduation requirements for most public high school students. They argue that the new standards are being phased in too quickly before teachers have time to align curriculum and instruction with the new tests. They also say that these tests are not an accurate measure of the overall academic performance of students. A possible increase in dropout rates is another concern.

In Texas, minority students are taking the Texas Education Agency to court for "denying diplomas to Mexican American and African American students at a rate higher than that of Anglo students." They contend that implementing standardized tests as a requirement for high school graduation is being done without sufficient proof that all students have opportunities to learn what the tests measure.

Teachers College Looks at High Stakes Tests

Teachers College is concerned with what works and what doesn't in reaching children who are struggling to learn. Faculty members conduct ongoing research of educational policy making issues and participate in forums that address concerns of policy makers. High stakes testing is one of those issues.

Research done by two faculty members, Professor Gary Natriello and Associate Professor Jay Heubert, highlights different aspects of high stakes testing. Neither one disparages testing, and each agrees that the goal of raising standards is commendable and necessary. They have, however, explored whether tests improve academic performance and if test results are being used appropriately.

Professor Natriello, who is a respected expert on school finance and equity in financial support for public schools, studied the development and impact of high stakes testing. He also looks at the issues of higher standards from the point of view of cost as well as the impact on the children who have to live up to these standards.

Professor Heubert directed a Congressionally mandated study on high stakes testing for the National Academy of Science. The 1999 study (High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation) concludes, among other things, that important decisions about individual students should not be based solely on test scores, and that tests should not be used to make high-stakes decisions about individual students until educators can show that they are teaching students the kinds of knowledge and skills that the tests measure.

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