|Here’s a plan for requiring more than good grades to graduate.|
America’s obsession with standardized tests is about to become even more intense as states move to comply with the new Bush education law requiring annual testing in grades 3 through 8. The foolish emphasis we put on testing is expensive, unnecessary, and probably harmful to millions of children.
Despite warnings from testing experts and educators that important decisions should not be based on a single measure, 17 states now require high school students to pass an exit exam to graduate, and at least seven more plan to do so.
Standardized tests have too many deficiencies to be the determining factor in assessing student achievement. But the most egregious flaw is that they don’t address the qualities that most parents want their children to have—such as the skills and attitudes needed to continue learning on their own and to be good citizens, productive workers, and fulfilled human beings. Parents want their kids to develop virtues and values that we can all agree on, like diligence, honesty, tolerance, fairness, and compassion.
I suggested to a friend who has worked at both the state and district levels that policymakers and educators should develop an assessment system of multiple measures to evaluate students’ academic and personal achievements. He said it would be too complicated and subjective to be practical. “What would you include?” he challenged. At that moment, I wasn’t sure. But as I pondered the idea, I became convinced that such a system is possible and would be superior to what’s currently in vogue.
I envision a system requiring 80 points out of a possible 135 to graduate. Anyone earning 100 to 115 would graduate with honors, and those with more than 115 would receive high honors. Students would be assessed as follows:
- 40 points for passing the mandated state or district exit test.
- 0-20 points for the grade average of all courses. An A average earns 20 points; a B earns 15; a C earns 10; a D earns 5.
- 0-25 points for personal work (such as exhibition in the arts and sciences), class participation, and behavior. In written evaluations, two teachers rate the student on a scale of 0 to 25, with the student being awarded the average.
- 10 points if a student has fewer than five unexcused absences.
- 0-25 points for extracurricular activities. A student receives 15 points for participating in two or more activities and earns up to 5 additional points on the recommendation of each activity’s adviser or coach. An award, such as an athletic letter or writing prize, earns another 5 points.
- 0-15 points for volunteer work in the community. The number of points earned is based on the recommendation of the adult supervising the activity.
Students cannot earn enough points to graduate just by passing exit tests; they must show achievement in other areas. But students who do not pass exit tests can still earn a diploma, as long as they excel enough in those other areas to earn at least 80 of the remaining 95 points. If a student who fails the test earns the maximum for attendance, extracurricular activities, and volunteer work, he or she still needs to earn 30 points in either grades or teacher evaluations.
These numbers and categories are suggestions that could be improved. Although some of the evaluations are subjective, I would argue that that is proper. Few of us take standardized tests after we leave school. Instead, we are judged on what we produce and how we behave, and assessments of our performances in real life are usually more subjective than objective.
The bottom line is this: Teachers, advisers, and coaches evaluate students continually, and their assessments should count when deciding whether a student graduates.
One more thing. The reason most often given for high-stakes testing is to motivate students. I suggest that states also increase motivation by awarding college scholarships to students who graduate with honors.
—Ronald A. Wolk