Lisa Guisbond: Resist the testing bandwagon. Op Ed.


Lisa Guisbond: Resist the testing bandwagon

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, May 4, 2008




THE RHODE ISLAND Board of Regents will discuss on May 15 proposed changes to the state’s high-school-graduation requirements that may increase the weight placed on state test scores. The board should think twice before going down this road.

More than two decades of evidence shows that high-school graduation tests are the wrong prescription for public education. In fact, such requirements most damage the groups that proponents claim they will help. Across America, misguided exit-exam mandates have increased drop-out rates, especially among minority groups, and focused classroom teaching on test preparation rather than 21st Century skills.

Because exit exams create more harm than good and do not improve education for underserved students, many see Rhode Island’s current high-school-diploma system as a model for its use of multiple measures of student competence and the limited weight placed on test scores. Such systems are more effective than exit exams at developing 21st Century skills, such as creativity, critical thinking and teamwork.

The board should consider what could be lost and resist pressure to move toward more reliance on high-stakes exams. A proposal to increase the weight of the test from 10 percent to one-third will no doubt increase the focus on test preparation and improve the appearance of test results, but it is unlikely to result in students who are better prepared for higher education and life after school. Nor would it serve the cause of equity.

In the name of equity, exit-exam promoters promise narrowed achievement gaps and overall score increases. But that has not happened. While the number of states with graduation tests has risen over the last two decades, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the benchmark federal test that is administered annually, show no narrowing of the achievement gap among racial groups at the high-school level. Nor have average reading scores increased.

A major reason for the lack of progress is that high-stakes testing, whether state-mandated exams or the federal No Child Left Behind law, flies in the face of real learning. Untested subjects are ignored, while tested topics turn into test-coaching programs. Test prep is like holding a match to a thermostat and believing the room will get warmer: Scores may rise on that test, but learning does not.

While there is no current proposal to weight the tests so that a poor score alone would prevent graduation, the tests will prove decisive for many more at one-third than at 10 percent. Independent research confirms a link between graduation tests and higher dropout rates. The more difficult the test, the more the dropout rate goes up. 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.

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 meaningful. When college professors and employers are surveyed, they say the projects and portfolios that are part of Rhode Island’s current system tell them far more about a candidate than test scores do.

If exit exams enhance school quality, why are Southern states — the first to adopt graduation tests — still mired at the bottom by any measure of educational performance? Why should Rhode Island follow the failed practices of Mississippi and Alabama?

On the other hand, how is society better off if a student who passes her courses is denied a diploma because she does not pass a test, as will almost certainly happen to Rhode Island youth under the proposal? The individual and societal costs of this approach 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.

The choice is not between the graduation-test approach and doing nothing. Solving the problem of unequal schools and inadequate outcomes requires many actions, from ensuring financial equity for low-income districts to having expectations of a well-rounded education for all children. Rhode Island can put students and high-quality education before test scores by resisting the pressure to climb on the testing bandwagon.

Lisa Guisbond is the testing-reform analyst at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.