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Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as Approach High-Stakes Assessments With Caution, NRC Report Urges

Approach High-Stakes Assessments With Caution, NRC Report Urges

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As policymakers continue to pursue measures that tie crucial decisions about students to tough new assessments, the National Research Council is sounding a warning about the use of such high-stakes testing.

In a report released last week, the Washington-based council urges school systems to tread carefully when using test scores to decide who graduates, who is held back a grade, and who is put in a remedial program.

Although attaching high stakes to newly mandated tests has become politically popular in recent years, the ability of such policies to improve the quality of education remains unclear, suggest the authors of "High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation." And without the proper supports for students, they say, such tests ultimately could do more harm than good.

"We think there are some very strong and potentially quite serious policy measures that are being proposed, and in some cases adopted, without really knowing what's going on," said Robert Hauser, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who led the project. "And we don't think that's a good idea."

Sharing Responsibility

Based on an analysis of student-retention data, a review of previous research, and a survey of the policy and legal issues surrounding high-stakes testing, the authors recommend that:

  • Districts improve classroom instruction and ensure that teachers cover areas to be tested before new consequences are attached to student assessments.
  • Students at risk of not graduating because of low scores be warned so that they have a chance to improve their performance before being held back.
  • No decisions about graduating or retaining a student be made based on the results of a single test. The authors also argue that test scores should not lead districts to place students in "low track" classes; in fact, they recommend eliminating all such courses.
  • States using high-stakes tests closely monitor their impact, not just on test scores, but also on dropout rates and students' future employment prospects.

The report also recommends against attaching high-stakes consequences to the voluntary new national tests President Clinton has proposed. The proposed assessments would not give students the chance to take the exams over, nor would they be well aligned with the curricula taught in local districts, the authors argue.

The NRC addressed national testing in two other reports released last week, one of which gauges the progress of the attempts under way to design the exams.

The other report, "Uncommon Measures: Equivalence and Linkage Among Educational Tests," argues that state and local tests in use across the country vary too widely to allow them to substitute for a single national exam.

Racial Divides

Part of the report on high-stakes testing questions the perception that so-called social promotion--a prime target of such tests' proponents--remains the norm in U.S. schools. In analyzing 1996 U.S. Census Bureau figures, the authors found evidence that student-retention rates overall may be quite high and that minority students continue to be retained more often than whites.

Up to 50 percent of black and Hispanic students ages 15 to 17 were older than was typical for their grade levels, suggesting they had been held back from promotion to higher grades; for white students, that figure was about 35 percent. Other research, the authors point out, has shown retention to be linked to higher dropout rates.

"To say that the solution is to retain more students doesn't seem to make sense then, if we're already retaining this many kids and things still seem to be so bad," said Monty Neill, who heads the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a testing watchdog group in Cambridge, Mass.

High-stakes tests, Mr. Neill contended, often unfairly penalize individual students while forcing schools to focus instruction too narrowly on the material covered by the exam. "The test then defines the standards, and it's not up to the job of improving instruction," he said.

But given public opinion and the current political climate, some education experts believe schools will have to learn how live with more exams that carry some consequences for their students.

"People need to weigh the issue carefully," said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "And yet we as educators need to understand that people have had it up to here with moving kids along when they don't know the material."

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 19

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