Arguments and Practice in High Stakes Testing

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Pulled back to the level of underlying significance, arguments of advocates against standardized test requirements for high school graduation appear contradictory:

“The latest statistics [showing that high percentages of Rhode Island students would not graduate] should serve as a wake-up call to all parents and policy-makers,” said Steven Brown, the Rhode Island ACLU’s executive director. “Rhode Island is on the verge of creating a huge and permanent underclass of teenagers based solely on the arbitrary scores of a standardized test….”

Karen Feldman, director of Young Voices, a youth advocacy group, said it’s unfair to hold students accountable for the educational system’s failure to educate them.

If Mr. Brown is correct, then it is the broad possession of high-school diploma that prevents the creation of an “underclass.”  However, Ms. Feldman’s comment indicates that failure to prove proficiency on the state’s standardized tests is evidence that students have not been well enough educated, implying a socioeconomic disadvantage whether or not they officially graduate.  If a diploma is used purely as arbitrary documentation, essentially, of the age of the graduate, then withholding it can have significant consequences for an individual, but if it is ultimately the education that has value, “it is,” as Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist puts it, “an incredible disservice to continue to hand out diplomas without them being meaningful.”  And the meaning required of the state’s graduation requirements does have controls so as to diminish the harm of inadequate schooling; students can still graduate if they “make statistically significant progress” between a first attempt at the test during junior year and a subsequent attempt during senior year.

Advocates’ proposals, moreover, appear not to match the trends that the state is actually seeing:

Rhode Island Legal Services and others said the emphasis should be on giving students additional support in elementary school rather than on a test in 11th grade. The groups cited a recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, which they said concluded that high school exit exams decrease the rate of graduation without increasing achievement.

To the contrary, elementary school is not where the problem is.  Few Rhode Island parents will be surprised to learn that it’s in middle school:

Student Proficiency in Math and Reading NECAPs by Grade

The study that Rhode Island Legal Services cites does, indeed, find that states that implement “high-stakes testing” requirements for graduation do not show a subsequent improvement on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores.  However, that finding is based on a single earlier study of statewide experiences across the nation.  A closer examination would be required to assert that Rhode Island’s circumstances do not differ in such a way as to make standardized graduation tests advisable as part of our overall reform.

As the authors of the the later study explain, “no effect” is determined because the results were “evenly divided between small positive and negative effects.”  “None was statistically significant,” but that could be the result of research methodology or policy implementation.  The people whom Rhode Island has selected to reform our system, Gist central among them, are in a better position to examine existing and potential policies than advocates quoting from broad-based academic studies.