As the first decade of the twenty-first century drew to an end, Frederick Douglass High School (Maryland) stood as a contradiction of social history, education and racial promise, the claimed failures of public schools, and the essential flaws in high-stakes accountability.
Focusing on Douglass High, documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond detail the realities of both day-to-day schooling in a high-poverty, majority-minority public schools and the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), enacted in 2001 with 100% proficiency requirements mandated for 2014.
Toward the end of the film, a voice-over explains that the accountability guidelines in place during the filming excluded exit exam data from graduation requirements for students, but those test scores were included in NCLB accountability decisions about the school and its administration and faculty. Panning across the test room and the voice-over reveal many students with their heads down during those tests.
While standardized testing has been a key component of education in the U.S. for a century, the accountability movement and the impact of high-stakes testing entered mainstream education in the early 1980s. One of the first uses of high-stakes testing then was the introduction of the exit exam, designed to prevent students from being passed along through the system and thus graduating without what proponents called basic skills. South Carolina was one of the first states to commit fully to the accountability movement, establishing standards, state tests, and linking graduation to exit exams.
In 2013, SC now sits poised to abandon the exit exam: “But S.C high school students would no longer have to pass an exit exam to graduate if a state House bill becomes law–welcome news for the thousands of students who struggle year after year to pass both the test’s math and English sections.”
However, this bill does not mean SC will stop implementing those tests: “But because the test is used to determine whether S.C schools and school districts meet state and federal accountability standards, students still would be required to take the exam.”
Sponsors and supporters of this bill should receive credit for recognizing the inherent flaw in honoring one data point (the exit exam) over years of multiple data points (course grades, course credits, GPA). In fact, deciding to drop student accountability for exit exam scores is justified by decades of data on the SAT, revealing that SAT scores remain less credible evidence of student readiness for college than GPA.
However, ending high-stakes consequences for students taking exit exams doesn’t go nearly far enough. SC, and states across the U.S., must end high-stakes testing and begin focusing reform and resources on the conditions of learning and teaching before outcomes can be evaluated in any valid way.
The current plan is flawed and incomplete in the following ways:
• Just as NCLB has proven to have unintended and detrimental consequences, maintaining teacher and school accountability on an exam that students themselves have no investment in can lead only to the exact scene depicted in Hard Times ay Douglass High—disengaged students and invalid test data. At the end of the documentary, viewers learn that the state takes over the school and replaces the administration, again based on testing many students had essentially felt no obligation to attempt.
• High-stakes testing has now been exposed as an ineffective reform policy in education. Continuing down the new standards and new tests path is no longer reform, but digging a deeper hole in the status quo.
• Holding teachers and schools accountable for the outcomes of students is a misuse of accountability since, as scholar and The New York Times columnist Stanley Fish explains, teachers cannot be “responsible for the effects of [their] teaching, whereas, in fact, [they] are responsible only for its appropriate performance.” In other words, ending student, teacher, and school accountability based on high-stakes tests must be replaced by policies that address the conditions of learning and teaching provided for all students by schools and teachers.
• Ultimately, high-stakes testing is an inefficient drain on state tax dollars; the testing machine and the constant creation, field-testing, and implementation of high-stakes tests fails to produce valid data, but lines the pockets of the testing industry at the expense of public funds.
Should states end using exit exams and other high-stakes tests as gatekeepers for graduation and grade promotion? Yes.
But the current plan to continue implementing exit exams as accountability data for schools and teachers fails to recognize that the problems are the tests themselves and how they are used.
The era of high-stakes testing itself must end, and in its place, let’s instead invest our time and tax dollars on the conditions of learning and teaching.
In response to my commentary examining the need to end exit exams for student, teacher, and school accountability, Peter Smyth raised some concerns about graduation requirements.
Here, then, are some additional thoughts of mine to add to that conversation.
First, let me be clear that I seek de-grading and de-testing of our schools. I offer the following comments within the assumption that the current system of grading, at least, will remain.
Next, I want to note an important couple of points:
(1) GPA is a perfectly good metric. The SAT has been trying to be as valid as GPA for decades, and still falls short. GPA is a better metric than a standardized, so-called objective test; likely, because GPA is a composite of hundreds of data points (a variety, in fact) in a couple dozen courses over four years. [See the College Board's own research.]
(2) The exit exam and entire accountability movement built on standards and high-stakes testing are built on a political lie, A Nation at Risk; thus, the solutions are not addressing any credible problems.
Now, should we have graduation requirements? Of course.
The traditional model, in fact, seems fine: Required passing grades in a set amount of coursework over a high school career.
Colleges function under this model and virtually no one complains.
Beyond this, however, I believe we are focusing on the wrong things, mainly the end, or the gatekeeping mechanisms.
The traditional model did fail occasionally (although a student "slipping by" in 24 courses seems highly unlikely), but more important to note is that the exit exam system has failed miserably.
Exit exams have not increased the quality of education for students or the quality of graduates (note that calls for reform are just as loud today as thirty years ago when all this nonsense started). Exit exams have decreased graduation rates and have lowered considerably the education of the most marginalized students because once a student fails an exit exam that student is cast into test-prep courses. People fail to recognize that it is easier to prep a student to pass a gatekeeping test than to have a student pass 24 courses.
Instead of gatekeeping exit exams, or any use of standardized tests, we need to focus on the conditions of teaching and learning; some of which should be:
• End tracking.
• Insure low teacher/student ratios.
• Afford teachers professional autonomy and replace accountability mechanisms with transparency models.
• Create intervention models that examine all D-average and below students between 10th and 11th grades to insure they have rich and challenging experiences in order to graduate.
• Revise current course requirements to fewer standard courses and more choice options.
Schools are not now and have never been struggling due to a lack of standards, expectations, or testing. Thus, standards, "high" expectations, and tests (new or not) are not the answers.
We persist at doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. And you should know what that is.
The conditions of our students lives, and then the conditions of teaching and learning in our schools—these are the problems, and when they are problems, it is about equity.
Let's start at the beginning for once instead of fretting yet again about the end.