Now more than ever, a high school diploma is critical to finding gainful employment, whether a student continues on to technical school or college. Schools and school systems must report graduation rates, resulting in an incentive to make sure that every student receives a high school diploma; yet many wonder whether that diploma is truly meaningful. Does it reflect a high standard of learning that ensures that a graduate is ready to attend college or start a career? Every year in the United States, almost 60% of college freshmen need remedial courses. To help address this problem, 24 states (including Massachusetts) now require high school exit exams. In theory, these assessments (across various disciplines) provide motivation to hold standards high and prevent unprepared students from graduating. In fact, because states want students to pass, most of them set the passing bar low enough that the majority of the students can pass on their first attempt (as 9th or 10th graders), and/or allow multiple re-takes of the exam, waivers, or other testing alternatives. As many states begin the shift to Common Core standards, these exit exams will likely become harder.
In Rhode Island, required high school exit exams have been delayed until at least 2017 (although students will continue to have to take the exams, even though a passing grade is not required to graduate). Why the delay? One main reason is because over 25% of RI seniors are at risk of not graduating, particularly those who are members of historically underserved groups: students who speak English as a second language, Black and Hispanic students, low-income students, and students who qualify for special education services. Numerous advocacy groups spoke out against instituting the high school exit exams when RIDE released the NECAP results in February, and the RI General Assembly and Governor Chafee have agreed with them, passing a law that postpones the use of the NECAP as a graduation requirement.
A recently released report, The Case Against Exit Exams by Anne Hyslop, not only explains the history behind these assessments but also highlights their shortcomings. Evidence shows that, in the states where they have been required, exit exams have had few of the expected benefits (such as higher rates of achievement and performance) and all of the expected costs (such as higher dropout rates and delays of graduation, particularly for at-risk students; and a loss of instructional time due to test preparation). Although more research is needed, there certainly seems to be little value in adopting high school exit exams as they stand now. We should delay requiring high school exit exams until we have a test that we have confirmed: a) measures student mastery of concepts and skills upon which we all agree; and b) is equitable and valid for all students taking the test.
So how can we guarantee that a Rhode Island high school diploma carries weight with colleges and employers? Many educators and opponents of high stakes testing, including the Providence Student Union, point to New York as an example. The New York Performance Standards Consortium represents 28 schools that have committed to a performance-based assessment approach, using project-based learning to demonstrate student achievement and mastery of skills. The data from this consortium proves that accountability is possible without measuring our students solely by their test scores.
Forty-four states and Washington, DC have committed to the Common Core standards. This is a huge shift from just five years ago, when practically every state used a different assessment in its schools. Fifteen states have decided to use PARCC tests (including Rhode Island and Massachusetts) and twenty-one have chosen to administer the Smarter Balanced tests as a measure of achievement. As a former teacher, I understand the theoretical value of common standards; in a school with a highly transient population, students whose families have moved several times often have large gaps in their learning, and a common core might help to alleviate that. But I also know the value of being flexible, being able to respond to and incorporate my students’ own interests and passions, and I question whether that ability to capitalize on “teachable moments” might be hampered by a rigorous adherence to common standards. Apparently, I am not alone in my concerns. In the past year, more and more people have expressed trepidation about the Common Core. Some states (such as Indiana and Oklahoma) have chosen to un-adopt the standards, and at least 12 states have decided to continue with their own testing, rather than using a common assessment. It remains to be seen how these assessments may be used to meet graduation requirements.
The debate regarding high stakes testing and Common Core standards is not likely to be settled anytime soon. There is no simple solution to such a complex issue; however, that does not mean we should shy away from the conversation. It remains to be seen whether the Common Core will have any effect on students’ readiness for college-level courses; a report released on July 22 states that college professors have had little to no involvement in the development of the standards. The fact that almost 60% of all American college freshmen currently need remedial courses is a solid indication that our system is not working to graduate students who are prepared for the next phase of their lives.
This article was originally posted on GoLocalProv.