Across the nation, tens of thousands of students are denied diplomas each year simply because they did not pass a standardized state test. After 12 years of playing by the rules, working hard, and completing all other graduation requirements, students can find that their future hinges on just one or two points.
Misguided exit-exam mandates have increased dropout rates, especially among minority groups, and have focused classroom teaching on test preparation rather than 21st century skills. The full record in states like Texas and Massachusetts shows that high-stakes tests are the wrong prescription for what ails public education. That's why Pennsylvania civil rights and disability advocates, teachers, administrators, school board members, public school parents, and others have expressed serious concerns about Gov. Rendell's high-stakes testing plan.
A poll from the respected Susquehanna Institute shows they are not alone. By a landslide 62 percent to 31 percent, Pennsylvanians responding to a recent survey opposed denying diplomas to students if they fail a statewide test but have passed all their classes.
The problems exit exams are meant to solve are certainly real. Pennsylvania, like most states, has gaps in educational access, quality and outcomes. But exit exams won't cure these ills. For too many students, the cure is worse than the disease. Rather than provide better education and expanded opportunities, graduation tests add punishment - denial of a diploma - to those who most need help.
Proponents incorrectly claim that exit exams will narrow achievement gaps. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports no narrowing of achievement gaps at the high school level among racial groups. Nor have average high school scores increased.
Real progress has been elusive because high-stakes testing, including No Child Left Behind, undermines rather than improves education. Untested subjects are ignored, while tested topics narrow to test-coaching programs. Test prep is like holding a match to a thermostat and believing the room is warmer: Scores rise on that test; real learning does not.
The most thorough independent national research also confirms a link between graduation tests and higher dropout rates. Texas introduced exit exams in 1992. Fifteen years later, Texas used test results to deny diplomas to a record 40,200 students in the Class of 2007. In 2006, Boston's annual dropout rate rose sharply, from 7.7 percent to 9.9 percent. At the same time, the city suffered a wave of youth violence. Boston City Council issued a report stating, "Students . . . expressed massive frustration and boredom with the endless drilling and practice of the MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, a statewide standardized test] . . . and test preparation. . . . Far too many students describe their school experience as an MCAS-centric environment. . . . [As a result,] the incentive for students to remain in school is tenuous."
Tests have "measurement error," which means some children will fail even though they know the subject. Being able to take the test more than once helps, but does not solve this problem. There is also the well-documented problem of test anxiety: An accomplished student may freeze, not do well on the test, and be denied a diploma.
No one wants to see youth leave school without the skills needed for success. Exam supporters say students shouldn't get meaningless diplomas if they can't pass the tests. But it's a student's overall transcript that makes a diploma truly meaningful. For example, high school grades are better predictors of college success than the SAT. A standardized test is not a solid foundation for establishing meaning.
The individual and societal costs of denying a diploma based on a state test score are high. Students without diplomas earn much less, are far less likely to maintain stable families, and are far more likely to end up in prison.
Pennsylvania must take strong action to address the problems of unequal schools and inadequate outcomes, from providing funding equity among rich and poor towns to stronger staff development and high-quality assessments. That means ensuring all children experience a well-rounded education and avoiding the magic-bullet false solution of a high-stakes graduation test.
Monty Neill is co-executive director of FairTest, and Lisa Guisbond is testing reform analyst. E-mail Neill at email@example.com.
And here is a response to Monty Neill that the author gave permission to print:
I read your article in the Inquirer and couldn't agree more. I went to St. Joe's Prep (a long time ago) and now teach 9th graders in a public high school in South Carolina. Needless to say, I speak as a veteran teacher.
The End-of-Course tests in this state--as in others--are beyond merely a negative factor in the ways you mention, they are outright MADNESS. I refuse to let EOC pressure wear on my mind like other teachers, but then again, I'm 56 and will be out of this madness soon. I feel sympathy for young teachers walking into the horror of having this millstone of politically-mandated crap hanging over them, and that is why I'm writing to you.
For, here's the biggest reason against exit testing that's left out of these discussions: good, new, dedicated teachers will leave the profession instantly when they go through even one year of this insanity. I know of two examples right off the top of my head, who would have been excellent teachers. I was in a "curriculum standards" teacher's meeting Tuesday of this week, and thinking exactly that.
The politicians drive administrators to walk into these meetings and say, "Now, we don't want you to teach to the tests, but . . ." And teachers are sitting there knowing full well that's a load of nonsense. OF COURSE, they want us not only to teach to the test, they want us to gear the entire curriculum in lockstep to it. No new teacher worth a grain of salt will want to kiss up to that kind of phony approach. Good luck to schools of education finding the saps who want to go through the robotic, insipid teaching routine embodied in that concept. In the meantime, the politicians are not "accountable"--their favorite word--and are on their merry way making up another soundbite about their deep concern with education. Spare me. It's absolute madness.
Bob Strauss, Jr.