More States Retreat from Testing

K-12 Testing

At least seven states have now been forced to back off from their original high-stakes testing requirements and deadlines, mostly due to unexpectedly high failure rates of students nearing graduation and to increasing opposition from teacher and parent groups.


The latest round of states to retreat includes Arizona, Wyoming and California. Similar movement looks certain in Alaska and Ohio. In each case, the tests were reportedly designed to measure high-level standards rather than basic skills. Other states including Alabama, Maryland, Delaware, and Wisconsin (see Examiner, Spring 2000), have also decided to scale down their testing programs.


The most notable reversal came in Arizona when for the second time in two years state education chief Lisa Keegan gave in to mounting pressure from teachers and parents to back off the testing requirement for 10th grade students (see Examiner, Winter 1999). Long a staunch supporter of high-stakes exams, Keegan nevertheless absolved the class of 2004 from the testing requirement and suspended use of the tests to determine graduation until corrections can be made. Other changes expected include making the math questions less difficult and lowering the passing standard for the writing portion of the test.


Keegan maintains, however, that at some point the test will still be used as a high school exit exam. “We’re not asking if, but when,” she commented. The Arizona legislature, however, has launched a review of the entire state testing program. And after litigation was filed, the Board has released portions of the state test (see Examiner, Spring 2000).


California’s Board of Education signaled the first major step back in that state’s testing requirements, asking legislators to delay for one year the date by which students must pass the test to receive a high school diploma. The board also decided to release a copy of the exam to the public, to eliminate the most difficult math problems, and to reduce the length of the exam by one hour. Public opposition to the test continues to grow, including calls for a statewide boycott (see story p. 7 ; and Examiner, Spring 2000).


The Wyoming Education Association won unanimous approval from the state education board for a two-year delay in the state’s testing requirement, moving the date when all high school students must pass the state’s proficiency standards exams in math and language arts in order to graduate high school to 2005. The request echoed an earlier one brought by the Wyoming Department of Education, which the state board had denied.


“We’re never going to have it perfect, but tell that to the kid who doesn’t get a diploma,” commented the assessment director of the state education department.


The Alaska state education board has asked its legislature to postpone the use of a high-stakes graduation exam from 2002 to 2006, passing a resolution by unanimous consent.


Widespread Ohio parent opposition has pressured the lawmakers to review the state testing program. The state legislature appears likely to halt the promotion requirements of a grade four test which half the test-takers failed.


Too hard, too high, too fast
Sky-high failure rates in many states on the first rounds of tests, especially in math, spurred mounting criticisms from academic experts, teachers and parents. For example, 84% of students failed the math portion of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) last spring, the second year the test was administered. On the first trial of California’s planned graduation test, students gave correct answers to only 44% of the math questions and 55% of the English-language arts items. Alaska’s initial results showed that about 25% failed reading, over 50% failed writing, and about 75% did not pass math – and students scored even more poorly in each subject on a retake exam given in the fall.


The failure rates have bolstered complaints from teachers and parents that pass-fail, cut-off scores have been set too high, at least for the first rounds of students. Persistent score gaps between white and minority students have led to further resistance. Parent, teacher and civil rights organizations have questioned the legality of testing programs that apply a uniform standard for gaining a diploma, despite well–documented resource inequities among districts and the lack of opportunity for some students to learn the required material. The states’ delays were as much an effort to reduce legal vulnerability as an attempt to mollify ongoing opposition to their accountability plans.


“We don’t want to duck the accountability issue,” said Alaska state education Deputy Director Bruce Johnson. “But we want to be fair with [students taking the test], who are, for all practical purposes, guinea pigs.”


Changes too little
While the first rounds of “guinea pigs” will get a break due to these changes, failure to halt the misuse of standardized tests for high-stakes decisions — as recommended by leading testing experts and the national exam use standards — means many erroneous and unfair decisions will still take place. So far, states have made few moves to institute accountability systems that utilize a variety of assessments, both local and state, to gauge school and student progress, and no state (in recent years) has eliminated a test-based graduation requirement, though Wisconsin has come close (see Examiner, Summer 1999).


Likewise, many states are sticking to the premise that the “wake-up call” issued by high-stakes testing will result in substantial educational improvements, rather than the opposite — an escalation of teaching to the test, more redundant, low-level remediation, and the elimination of in-depth and varied courses.