Accepting the high school testing challenge

A
few weeks ago, Diane Ravitch posted a challenge on Twitter:

“I
challenge anyone who supports the current testing regime to take the 12th grade
test for graduation and release the results to the media.”

The
tweet was a response to a post published by Valerie Strauss in early December that
told the story of a prominent and, by all accounts, very successful Florida school board
member who took a state ELA and math test and publicized his results. (He
earned 17 percent in math, 62 percent in reading.) His experience caused him to
question to validity of using tests as part of a statewide accountability
system. He said:

“It
makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s
entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world
functioning…I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test]
in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals
who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

Strauss
agreed and concluded:

“There
you have it. A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately driven
education change: Decisions are being made by individuals who lack perspective
and aren’t really accountable.”

The
post and Ravitch’s challenge set off a firestorm of anti-testing vitriol. This
was proof, people argued, that “corporate-driven” standards- and
accountability-driven reforms should be abandoned.

Intrigued,
I went and took the modified test that Strauss posted on her blog. My results:
86% on math (6/7) 100% on reading (7/7). Perhaps I’m an outlier? (Click on
these links to take the reading or math test yourself.) But either way, the crux of this
conversation should not be about how I did—or how a Florida school board member did. Indeed,
such conversations distract us from the debate we should be having about
standards- and accountability-driven reform for three reasons.

First,
as the board member himself acknowledges, “if [he’d] actually been in the 10th
grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh.” In all
likelihood, that’s the case, particularly for math. I suspect that this board
member took a job that doesn’t require much day-to-day math knowledge. There’s
nothing wrong with that, and it’s unsurprising that someone who isn’t using
high-level math every day would forget some of that important content. But that
doesn’t mean that we should stop asking high school graduates to demonstrate
mastery of that content. After all, we need to ensure that we give students the
option to take college-level math if they so choose.

Second,
the rhetoric that inspired Strauss’s post and its follow ups suggests that a
single test can dictate the future of young children in our country. That is
simply not true. There are places where it is: in France, for instance, the only
students who are eligible to attend state universities must pass the nation’s
baccalaureate. Other nations have similarly black-and-white approaches to
deciding who is and is not “college material.” Here, only a little over half (28)
of states require students to take a standardized test as a condition of
earning a high school diploma. Most of those assessments are pegged at 10th
grade—not 12th grade—standards. All students have multiple chances to pass the
test before graduation. And even students who don’t pass have other
opportunities to pursue postsecondary education if they so choose.

But,
more than that, shouldn’t earning a high school diploma depend on demonstrating
mastery of some predetermined set of knowledge and skills? If not those that
the FCAT (or other tests) assess, then let’s talk about what we think all
students should learn and about how we can best measure that. It shouldn’t
focus on abandoning all efforts to measure student learning of any standards.

Before
we abandon all state testing and accountability systems, shouldn’t we work to
build a better evaluation of student learning?

Finally,
and most importantly, few people argue that existing state tests are perfectly
crafted. On the contrary, while it is possible to glean instructionally useful
information about student learning from the assessments, they provide a narrow
and imperfect picture of student mastery of essential content and skills.
That’s unsurprising given how few states make getting assessments right a top
priority. (As I’ve argued before, states have invested a comparatively small portion
of their budgets on getting assessment right.)

Before
we abandon all state testing and accountability systems, shouldn’t we work to
build a better evaluation of student learning? After all, don’t we need to
better understand how prepared our students are for the rigors of college-level
work? And shouldn’t we rely on something other than individual GPAs, which are
frequently inflated, overestimate the performance of top students in
low-performing schools, and give little information on what students have or
have not learned?

In
the end, the real challenge is to ensure that a high school diploma is a
meaningful indication that students who’ve earned it are ready for the rigors of
college-level work and beyond. The system we have now is imperfect, but
proponents of standards-driven reform are working to make it better. I
challenge those who oppose standards- and accountability-driven reform writ
large to propose a viable alternative that does the job better.

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