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Student Testing: The Stakes Are Rising.

School accountability is sweeping the country. Most states now use standardized tests to measure a school's performance. But are these tests fair? Do they force teachers to "teach to the test?"

Testing is the new educational buzzword as federal and state policymakers grapple with creating and applying student assessment programs. As the use of tests increase, so do the protests, fueling the dispute over how to use standardized testing.

Moreover, President Bush's proposal to test all students in grades three to eight is intensifying the debate. The use of testing is not new in American education, but the emphasis and related consequences now placed on these "high stakes" tests are unprecedented.

"Anyone who opposes annual testing is an apologist for a broken system of education that dismisses certain children and classes of children as unteachable," asserts Rodney Paige, secretary of education. "The time has come for an end to the excuses, for the sake of the system and the children trapped inside." Proponents see testing as a way to raise standards and make public education more accountable.

In addition, testing allows schools and states to track student achievement. Schools can then evaluate how well students are performing over time, parents and the community can evaluate how well the schools are performing, and administrators can evaluate how well teachers are performing.

"Through testing we can evaluate the needs and progress of the students and our education reform efforts," says Massachusetts Representative Karyn Polito. "The tests are designed with the intention of having our children excel and be able to compete, not fail."

Yet many parents, educators and policymakers are concerned about the intended and unintended consequences of high stakes exams on students and schools. Critics contend that students must have adequate resources and opportunities before they are all held to the same yardsticks. A teacher for 24 years, California Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin argues that California is not ready to base decisions on student graduation or promotion on one single test.

"We will need time to build capacity within our educational system before we hold students accountable for passing tests based on high standards," she says. "Until we know that all students have trained teachers, textbooks aligned with standards and necessary support services, our students should not be penalized for failing to pass the exit exam."

Critics also wonder if these rigorous standards will cause students to become more disillusioned with the education process and inadvertently lead to an increased number of dropouts. There is currently no conclusive evidence that links dropout rates to graduation tests, but in some states with graduation exams, dropout rates are increasing. Numbers of students not graduating have jumped in North Carolina, Georgia, New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas. But in Milwaukee, where students take a rigorous test to graduate, there is a little evidence that the new requirement has had a negative effect on the graduation rate.

Some critics are also concerned about the effects of standardized tests on poor and minority students. A recent report by the National Research Council found that poor, minority students and those with limited command of English are "more likely than others to be placed in lower track classes or denied promotion or graduation on the basis of high stakes test scores."

A recent study by the Center on Education Policy, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., argues that testing alone will not alleviate the achievement gap between white and minority students. The report looks at 25 years of test scores and student performance indicators and reaches strong conclusions: If states want to improve student achievement, they need to invest in teacher development, lower class sizes in high-minority schools, use well-researched methods for raising student achievement, expand preschool, provide mentors for teachers and encourage parents to get involved. The report is critical of the way assessments are being used and urges state policymakers to be "cautious about overpromising what testing and high stakes accountability can accomplish alone."


The assessment story is becoming contentious in states where promotion to the next grade or a high school diploma is dependent on student test scores. Eighteen states currently withhold diplomas from students who fail to pass the statewide graduation exam, while five states--Alaska, Arizona, California, Massachusetts and Washington--have begun to administer exit exams, but are not attaching diplomas to results. In three states--Louisiana, North Carolina and New Mexico--students are required to pass exams both for graduation and promotion.

In Baltimore, more than 30,000 students, almost one-third of the city's public school population, have failed to meet tough new promotion standards and are required to take summer school. It costs $12.8 million, runs for five weeks, employs 1,200 teachers and requires the city's 180 schools to remain open. California is three years into its standardized testing and reporting accountability program that mandates annual testing of second through 11th grade students. Parents and educators in opposition believe the test is biased against students with limited English proficiency, and pressures teachers to teach to the test. A small but growing number of educators there are urging parents to tell their kids to skip the state's annual standardized test. In one school in Saratoga, 90 percent of the second graders did not take the state exam, and in San Jose, a third of the students had test-exemption notes from home.

And how are the teachers affected? Education Week's survey of 1,019 public school teachers across the country found that they support standards; however, they are feeling pressure from state testing and accountability. Eighty-seven percent of the teachers agreed that "raising standards was a move in the right direction." But 67 percent said that their teaching had "become somewhat or far too much focused on state tests." And 66 percent said they were "concentrating on tested information to the detriment of other important areas of learning."

As states move closer to requiring graduation exams, several, including Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Virginia, have passed or are considering legislation to delay or modify their original programs. The state board of education in Alabama approved a one-year delay in requiring passing scores on the math and science sections of the state's new high school graduation exam.

When 8,230 sophomores in Alaska took the graduation exam for the first time in spring 2000, approximately two-thirds failed the math section, more than a quarter of the students failed the reading section and more than half failed the writing portion. These results sparked fears that large numbers of students may not graduate in 2002 and spurred a plethora of proposals by legislators and Governor Tony Knowles to delay the exam. The Legislature passed a bill to delay the exam until 2004.

The public outcry against graduation tests in Massachusetts is fierce. Hundreds of students refused to take the graduation exam in May 2000 and marched on the state capitol for a protest rally against the high stakes assessment. The students delivered 7,000 signatures to the governor demanding that Massachusetts repeal a law tying graduation to a passing mark on the test. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam will not affect graduating seniors until 2003, but estimates from last year's exam show 25,000 of the 220,000 seniors (approximately 11 percent or one in 10) would not have graduated. The Massachusetts Teachers Association began a $6 million advertising campaign against the exam. In response, the state department of education launched a campaign in support of the exam, and a coalition of business leaders recently unveiled a similar marketing strategy in support of the state assessment system.

Despite the protests, Representative Polito believes that the state should remain committed to the tests. "MCAS is a system designed to challenge students and encourage them to be independent thinkers capable of living up to expectations placed upon them by a highly competitive world," she says. "By incorporating the MCAS into an evolving system of accountability, we will reap the benefits in the long run--but only if we give it a chance."

Some states are looking toward remediation programs to address high failure rates on their assessments. Policymakers are only beginning to understand how much this might cost. After a large percentage of sophomores failed the Massachusetts exam, the state boosted spending on remedial programs from $40 million to $46 million in hope of pushing borderline students to a passing score.


A significant concern for state lawmakers is how and at what percentage the passing score should be set, and who should set it. If the bar is too high, many students will not pass high school or be promoted to the next grade. If the bar is too low, then it doesn't encourage students to reach high levels of achievement.

California struggled over where to set the passing mark for the recently administered high school exit exam. Originally, policymakers planned to set the passing grade at 70 percent. But with low passing rates, the state board reconsidered and changed scores to 60 percent in English and 55 percent in math. Representative Strom-Martin agrees with the new passing scores. "It's appropriate that the state board lowered the passing scores on the exam at this time," she says. "California has the highest, most rigorous standards in the nation. Clearly we have much work to do in providing all of our students the equal opportunity to learn and become proficient enough to achieve those standards."

Even with this new rate, less than 45 percent of the state's freshmen scored high enough to qualify for a diploma in 2003. Minority students fared the worst; only 25 percent of Latinos and 23 percent of black students passed the math test. Only 8 percent of students in the state's lowest-performing schools passed the math exam at the new score. The board may revisit the passing scores in 2003. Students have eight chances to retake the test before they graduate.


With the potential of an economic downturn, policymakers are wondering how they can continue to fund high stakes testing and accountability systems. States collectively spent $400 million this year to test students, according to a study done by StateLine, a national news organization focusing on state government. California spent $44 million, followed by Texas at $26 million and Massachusetts at $20 million. The type of test a state uses affects the cost. Off-the-shelf tests cost between $5 and $15 per student to administer. But states that choose to develop their own test aligned with state standards can spend from $25 to $50 per student.

The Wisconsin Legislature in 2000 authorized the state to spend $4 million over two years to design and implement its high school exam. This year there was considerable debate, however, over whether to continue funding the assessment piece of the account-ability program.

"If the exam goes away, the credibility of the state will be severely sacrificed and the standards movement will be damaged," says House Education Chair Luther Olsen. "Without the assessment the standards will lose meaning. We asked schools to step up to the plate, and now we need to pull our weight and sustain the funding for the exam."

A recent publication by the National Association of State Boards of Education reported that President Bush's proposal to test every student by his proposed 2004 deadline would cost states anywhere from $2.6 billion to $7 billion. The proposal originally included $320 million for testing, sparking concern among states over the cost they would have to shoulder under this mandate. Developing and administering a state exam is only one aspect of testing; states also need to fund the collecting and reporting of student and school performance data, and pay for remedial classes for students who do not pass the exam.

While the notion of holding students and schools up to high standards is widely accepted, the use of penalties tied to a single standardized test are creating myriad questions and concerns.

"Our biggest challenge as a state will continue to be aligning and perfecting our standards with our testing and accountability system," Strom-Martin argues. "It's far from perfect at this point, but every year we are getting closer to realizing a system that makes sense for those who have to implement it-teachers and administrators-and those who will benefit from it- our students."

Shelby Samuelsen specializes in education issues at NCSL.


The accountability movement began with the establishment of standards in specific subject areas. Standards are designed to define what students should know and be able to do in different subject areas.

For example, from Kentucky, a writing standard for elementary school children is, "Students write using appropriate forms, conventions, and styles to communicate ideas and information to different audiences for different purposes." A sample math standard states that "students use mathematical ideas and procedures to communicate, reason and solve problems."

In 1997, 31 states had adopted standards in four academic subjects--English, mathematics, science and social studies. By 1999, 44 states had adopted standards in those subjects, and currently all states, except Iowa, have standards in at least one subject. Although nearly all states have created standards, there is wide variation from state to state on their clarity, content and level of difficulty.

States are working to ensure that their assessments are aligned with their standards. The number of states that administer student assessments explicitly aligned with standards in at least one subject increased from 35 in 1998 to 41 in 2000. The success of accountability reform depends greatly on strong standards and assessments that accurately measure those standards. These assessments often look very different from the basic multiple choice tests most of us may be used to on standardized tests. Sample questions from Washington's test are:


Grade 4:

1. Suppose you have a substitute teacher. In several paragraphs, write a letter to the substitute teacher explaining what is important to know about your class and why.

2. One day you discover that you have turned into an animal or object. In several paragraphs, write a story telling what happens next.

Grade 7:

1. What makes a good teacher? Write a multi-paragraph essay that will inform adults what makes a good teacher and why.

2. The school day has been extended by 15 minutes. In a multi-paragraph letter, convince the principal how the extra time should be spent and why.

Grade 10:

1. Your school's administrators have considered adopting new rules for student clothing (a dress code). The principal has asked for input from students. Take a position on this issue. Write a letter to convince the principal to agree with your position.

2. After high school, students have many choices Some go to college or technical schools; some go to work; some do other things Write a letter to.a guidance counselor in which you identify the choice you think you will make when you leave high AND explain why it's the best choice for you.


Grade 4

Dan baked some cookies, Sam took half of the cookies. Then Sue took half of the remaining cookies. Later, Lisa took half of the cookies that were left. What Dan came home, he saw only three cookies. Tell how many cookies Dan baked altogether. Clearly explain your thinking using words, numbers or pictures.

Grade 7

An actor's wardrobe includes 1 red hat and 1 white hat; 1 blue shirt, 1 white shirt and 1 green shirt; 1 pair black pants and 1 pair white pants. If the actor randomly grabs 1 hat, 1 shirt and 1 pair of pants from a dark closet (can't seethe colors), what is the probability the actor will pack; an outfit that is all-white? Show how you determine the total number of possible outfits, the number of all-white outfits, and the probability.

Grade 10

Kristin is going to fill her little brother's new, pool with water. She wants to know how long it will take to completely fill the new pool. Yesterday it took 20 minutes to fill the old pool. The new pool, has a radius of 4 ft. and a depth of 3 ft. The old pool has a radius of 2 ft and a depth of 1 ft. (shown as pictures on test.) Assume the water flow from the faucet is the same as yesterday. How long will it take to fill the new pool? Clearly explain your answer using words, number and/or diagrams to explain your answer.
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Author:Samuelsen, Shelby
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Previous Article:From Laboratories to Legislatures...
Next Article:This Is the House the Legislature Built.

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