Graduation Tests Will Harm Students. by Judith A. Browne-Dianis,0,2772361.s...

Graduation tests will harm students

By Judith A. Browne-Dianis

March 25, 2008

Beginning next year, Maryland students will face an additional hurdle to graduate from high school - passing four state tests. Students will be unable to receive diplomas if they fail the Maryland High School Assessments (HSA), even if they pass all of their classes during the year. Fortunately, the General Assembly is considering legislation that would eliminate this one-size-fits-all graduation requirement.

If we want to fix our schools, punishing students is not the answer. Instead, we must provide students with the resources they need, and rely upon other measures to assess them.

Maryland already has a graduation rate problem, and an exit exam will only exacerbate it. The state's graduation rate is distressingly low, especially for students of color: In 2006, it was 70.4 percent, and only 57 percent for black and Latino students. We would only fare worse with graduation tests that would push out even more students. Research links high-stakes testing to increases in high school dropout rates and decreased rates of high school completion, especially among students of color.

Furthermore, a report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that high-stakes tests do not improve the overall level of education in schools, but instead often penalize students, especially students of color, who initially received inadequate instruction.

Studies also indicate that incessant drilling or coaching to help students pass reduces the quality of the curriculum. Students are faced with a narrowed curriculum and a level of instruction that pushes lower-order cognitive skills. This may increase scores, but not necessarily because of a deeper understanding of the substance.

As a civil rights attorney and the parent of a student enrolled in Prince George's County schools, I urge all Marylanders to support the bills proposed by Del. Jay Walker and state Sen. C. Anthony Muse, both Prince George's Democrats, that remove the HSA as a graduation requirement. I have seen firsthand the deleterious effect of testing on children. Although my daughter is only in kindergarten, she is already being prepped for standardized tests. Most teachers despise the testing culture, which sucks the creativity out of teaching; in fact, it's pushing the best of them out of the system. We have to stop this testing train before it runs off with the hopes and futures of our children.

With the elimination of the high-stakes graduation requirement, students would be rewarded for successful performance in the classroom, giving meaning to their 12 years of schooling, rather than having their hard work and accomplishments overshadowed by four tests. Students' transcripts make their diplomas meaningful; these grades are better predictors of college success than even the SAT exam.

We must scrap this reliance on testing and emphasize effective strategies, such as high-quality teaching and learning, equal funding, stronger professional development, improved curricula and multiple measures of assessment, all of which can improve the graduation rate for all students.

Our schools are neglected and plagued by inequities in the quality of educational services and funding. We cannot enforce a mandate that has proved ineffective at improving achievement and disproportionately affects students of color and other students who are in the most need.

The research speaks for itself - high-stakes testing hurts, rather than helps, our students. It's time to demand a change. Let's not let test scores determine students' future life chances, educational opportunities and employment. The health of our democracy depends upon a more thoughtful solution to the ills of our public education system than testing our way out of them.

Judith A. Browne-Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project and a vice chairwoman of the board of FairTest.

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