FairTest Report Questions Reliance On High-Stakes Testing by States

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Students in states that require them to pass a test in order to graduate from high school tend to fare worse on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to a new report.

The report, released last week by a group critical of standardized testing, takes aim at growing calls for states to put in place so-called high-stakes tests. Seventeen states now have such programs in place, and five more are considering the idea.

State and national policymakers--including President Clinton--have pointed to such tests as a way to improve student learning. In addition, the study notes, Quality Counts '98, a report card on all 50 states' efforts to improve education published this month by Education Week, also awards points to states that have such testing systems in place.

Monty Neill

"There is now something of a national strategy that says we're going to put in high-stakes tests and somehow that'll make things better," said Monty Neill, the acting executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, the Cambridge, Mass.-based group that issued the new report. "What we're saying and what this shows is, 'Where is the evidence that it does in fact make things better?'"

But some leading testing experts suggested last week that FairTest's analysis sheds more heat than light on the debate over the use of state tests as a requirement for graduation.

Achievement Compared

The organization, long a critic of high-stakes tests, used two methods to determine whether state testing policies translate to good performance on NAEP, a nationally representative survey of student achievement.

First, the FairTest study compared states' testing policies with students' NAEP performance.

Of the 17 states with the highest percentages of 8th graders scoring at the "proficient" level or above on NAEP mathematics exams in 1996, none required high school graduation tests, the study found. Graduation exams were required, however, in 13 of the 22 states with the lowest percentages of students reaching the proficient level on the assessment.

Likewise, in grade 4, none of the 24 states where at least one-fifth of students scored "proficient" or higher had a graduation exam in place. On the NAEP reading tests, last given in 1994, states with high school exit tests were similarly scarce among top-ranked states but numerous among the lowest scorers.

But Dan Koretz, a RAND Corp. researcher who has studied testing systems in several states, said "there are lots of reasons why kids in different states score at different levels that have nothing to do with tests." Some states, in fact, put in place the more rigorous testing systems because their students were already scoring poorly on tests such as NAEP.

"Any basic research course cautions against this kind of analysis," Mr. Koretz added.

FairTest researchers also sought to bolster their argument against high-stakes testing by looking at the gains or losses that states made on the national assessments between 1992 and 1996. They found that only four of the 14 states that made big improvements in students' math scores during that time required high school graduation tests. In reading, no states improved their scores significantly. But half of the eight states that saw big drops in NAEP reading scores required exit exams.

Conclusions Questioned

Robert Linn, a co-director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, pointed out, however, that there is a huge span between the 4th and 8th grades--when students take the NAEP tests--and exams taken at the end of high school. "It would be hard to draw inferences one way or the other from that," he said.

But all of the researchers interviewed agreed with FairTest's contention that research evidence supporting the use of high-stakes tests as a means of improving schools is thin.

Craig D. Jerald, the project director for Education Week's 50-state report, said such tests should be just one of a broad range of strategies states use to improve their schools. In Quality Counts, he noted, most of the states that fared well on the NAEP tests also got high marks for their efforts at improving the teaching, climate, and the resources available for their schools--as well as for their standards and assessments.

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