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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.

Ending Exit Exams a Start, But Not Enough

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.

Thoughts on Graduation Requirements

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.

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Thu May 30, 2013 at 05:52 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Sorry, but we need accountability. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rich in PA, nextstep

    We cannot rely on GPA because the GPA is determined by teachers and administrators. Teachers and administrators have strong incentives to create the illusion of a well-functioning system.

    It is a harsh thing to say, but let's not dance around it: We don't trust you.

    Why don't parents trust the Educational Establishment? Because we see (with our own eyes) kids who have HS diplomas, yet lack basic skills.

    I understand the the major drivers of bad outcomes are socioeconomic factors beyond any school's control. But why can't we have the simple honesty required to label unprepared students as being "unprepared"?

    If the required skills are not mastered, passing grades should not be given. Diplomas should not be granted. And public statistics on "graduation rates" and "proficiency rates" should reflect this reality.

    Removing standardized tests will enable teachers and administrators to simply lie and claim that all our kids are doing well.

    The Wall Street crash taught us the peril of letting an industry self-regulate. The Entrenched Educational Establishment cannot be trusted with self-regulation any more than polluters, banks, or defense contractors can. Parents and taxpayers need objective, standardized measures of progress.

    If kids can't pass a test, they shouldn't be promoted. We can argue about how hard the test must be, but there must be a test.

    Blaming the teacher for low scores is usually wrong. Bad learning outcomes are mostly the fault of things teachers can't control! But trying to cover up or eliminate the scores themselves is intellectually dishonest and a denial of reality.

    •  That's the meta problem progressives have... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ManhattanMan

      ...when it comes to poverty.  We think poverty, and even some big kinds of relative deprivation, are horrible and that they have horrible effects. (If they didn't have horrible effects, it would merely be an esthetic observation to say they're horrible.)  But then we deny or relativize those effects, by condemning any evaluations that make them visible.  Either we have problems with our society or we don't--it makes no sense to say that we do, but that everyone's doing fine.

      You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

      by Rich in PA on Thu May 30, 2013 at 06:41:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The NCLB evaluations do not make the effects (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Tonedevil

        of poverty visible so that we can fix them. They are there to make the effects of poverty punishable and to enable the destruction of the public school system.

        Also, and totally out of context, What you mean We, White man?

        Ceterem censeo, gerrymandra delenda est

        by Mokurai on Thu May 30, 2013 at 01:23:55 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  One minor observation (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ManhattanMan, nextstep
      If kids can't pass a test, they shouldn't be promoted. We can argue about how hard the test must be, but there must be a test.
      I'd have no strong objection to passing everyone, so long as we're honest about it.  We'd just say they completed X years of schooling, rather than calling them graduates in any sense.  And that's how one or more states have done it, if I rightly recall: pass the test and you get that recognition, don't pass it and you get certified as having completed your schooling.  But that isn't good enough for progressives because it doesn't give equal credentialing to those who pass the exist test and those who fail.  That's where I feel like giving up.

      You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

      by Rich in PA on Thu May 30, 2013 at 06:45:51 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Baseless (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tonedevil

      GPA is a BETTER metric than SAT.

      Your lack of trust is baseless.

      •  Of course, he didn't say SATs. (0+ / 0-)

        The lack of trust is based on precisely the same reality you decry, except that you edit out any responsibility for peopel who actually work in public education, save for upper administration.

        You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

        by Rich in PA on Thu May 30, 2013 at 07:00:45 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Please stop... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        kyril

        ...with the statistical shenanigans.

        It is true that GPA alone is a better predictor of college success than SATs alone.

        But if you use both together you get stronger predictions than either alone. Test scores are not as valuable as GPA, but they are still very, very valuable.

        Also let's not confuse the (admittedly flawed) SAT with other exit exams.  I am not advocating using the SAT to award diplomas!

        We may even need to design new tests to use as exit exams. Educational professionals should be the main drivers of this test design. But when the design process is over, we need a test that is:

        1) Standardized: Every kid gets treated the same.
        2) Objective: No individual score should be subject to the whims or biases of particular people.
        3) Comparable: We can make comparisons across schools, student subgroups, and time periods.
        First we must measure results. Then we can talk about how best to allocate funding to improve results.
    •  You are attempting to solve the wrong problem (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tonedevil

      like Yossarian dressing the wrong wound. Arguing that we need better tests rather than better education is one of the ways Republicans got us into this mess.

      It is inexcusable for schools to fail to teach a love of reading and math. But our schools are set up to teach children who come to them as sponges for knowledge not to love learning anything unless teachers don't want them to know it, and often not even then.

      Ceterem censeo, gerrymandra delenda est

      by Mokurai on Thu May 30, 2013 at 01:21:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  There's only one question of interest to me. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ManhattanMan

    Is it possible that a student who gets passing grades in enough courses to have a passing GPA, but who fails the exit exam, has sufficient mastery of high school stuff to justify calling him or her a high school graduate?  Sure, if the exam doesn't align in form or content with the course content, or if you only get one shot at it, or for several other reasons I won't list here.  But I don't see why it should be impossible to address all of those factors sufficiently.  It seems that you're denying the ability of the government to do something relatively simple, which is to administer a test, while doubling down on its ability to do something far more difficult, a whole bunch of small and local tests administered and evaluated by the teacher, with all of the attendant conflicts of interest we'd be quick to point out in any other context.

    You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

    by Rich in PA on Thu May 30, 2013 at 06:37:59 AM PDT

  •  GPA primarily measures compliance. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tonedevil

    It measures whether a student is willing to show up for slow-paced high school classes and complete mountains of tedious and repetitive homework just because the adults in their life demand it.

    SAT scores primarily measure aptitude. They measure whether a student is capable of performing relatively intellectually-demanding tasks under pressure and time constraints.

    Low-compliance, high-aptitude kids like I was (3.2ish GPA, 1580 SAT) can often do exceptionally well in college, especially in schools with a selective, competitive culture where grades are based heavily on high-stakes tests. We're also uniquely valuable to the academic communities of the schools that accept us, because we're likely to have interesting and original ideas and be willing to challenge authority in order to express them. SAT scores are one of the few ways colleges are able to distinguish us from 'average' kids whose GPAs are actually an accurate predictor of their performance.

    High-compliance, low-aptitude kids, on the other hand, may be able to get a very high GPA in high school but be unable to handle college-level work independently, especially in a high-stakes timed test environment. They're often better-suited to schools with a different teaching culture where more weight is placed on homework and projects, for which their conscientious approach is an asset.

    SATs aren't particularly interesting when they correspond closely to a student's GPA. They are, however, very interesting when there's a major discrepancy between the two. The fact that GPA is a better predictor than SAT scores on average doesn't mean that it's a better predictor in every case. If the goal of the college admissions process is to match kids with schools where they're likely to do well, then SATs are an important data point - not for the majority of kids whose SATs match their grades, but for the minority whose SATs show a discrepancy.

    "Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines." - Sgt. Maj Michael Barrett on DADT repeal

    by kyril on Thu May 30, 2013 at 10:38:57 AM PDT

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