Why I Didn’t Graduate
My high school graduation took place during the Memorial Day weekend. However, despite being ranked sixth in my class, I did not cross the stage that day, and my dad, our high school principal, did not give me a diploma. I did not drop out at the last minute, and I was not expelled. I didn’t graduate because I refused to take the Ohio Proficiency Tests.
I did this because I believe these high-stakes tests (which are required for graduation) are biased, irrelevant, and completely unnecessary.
The bias of the tests is demonstrated by Ohio’s own statistics. They show consistently that schools with high numbers of low-income and/or minority students score lower on state tests. It is argued (in defense of testing) that this is not the tests’ fault, that the scores are only a reflection of the deeper socioeconomic injustices. This is very likely true. What makes the tests biased is the fact that the state does little or nothing to compensate for the differences that the students experience outside the classroom. In fact, the state only worsens the situation with its funding system. Ohio’s archaic school funding system underfunds schools in poorer areas because it is based on property taxes. The way we fund our schools has been declared unconstitutional four times, and yet the state legislature refuses to fix the problem.
“Achieving 'Success at Scale'”
The irrelevance of these tests is also demonstrated by state statistics—in this case, the lack of them. In 13 years of testing, Ohio has failed to conduct any studies linking scores on the proficiency tests to college-acceptance rates, college grades, income levels, incarceration rates, dropout rates, scores on military-recruiting tests, or any other similar statistic. State officials have said that it would be too difficult or costly to keep track of students after high school, but I find this hard to believe. My high school is tracking my class for five years with help from the Coalition of Essential Schools. Certainly the state, with all its bureaucrats, could do the same.
Both of these factors, the tests’ biases and their irrelevance, contribute to making Ohio’s proficiency testing unnecessary. This system is so flawed it should not be used to determine whether or not students should graduate. More important, a system already exists for determining when students are ready to graduate. The ongoing assessment by teachers who spend hours with the students is more than sufficient for determining when they are ready to graduate. This kind of assessment, however, is being undermined by the focus on test preparation, which has eliminated many advanced courses and enrichment experiences. And since the tests do not and cannot measure things such as critical thinking, the ability to work with others, public speaking, and other characteristics important to democratic citizenship, these are pushed aside while we spend more time memorizing for tests.
After almost a decade and a half, many Ohioans cannot imagine what could be done in place of the state’s high-stakes testing. But in southeastern Ohio, alternative assessments are alive and kicking. At my school, Federal Hocking High School, in Stewart, Ohio, every senior has to complete a senior project (I built a kayak), compile a graduation portfolio, and defend his or her work in front of a panel of teachers in order to graduate. These types of performance assessments are much more individualized and authentic, and are certainly difficult, something I can attest to, having completed them myself. There may be a place for standardized tests in public education, but they should not be used to determine graduation.
It is because of these reasons I decided to take a stand against the Ohio Proficiency Tests, even though it would cost me my graduation and diploma. Why such a drastic measure? The reason is simple: Someone has to say no. Education is the key to maintaining our democracy, and I have become disgusted by the indifference displayed by lawmakers who make statements about the value of public education while continuing to fail to fairly and adequately fund it or commit to performance-based assessments.
I have written a number of state senators and representatives from both parties recommending that the state allow districts to set alternatives to high-stakes tests for graduation. Having done everything required for graduation but take the tests, I thought my situation would provide them with an opportunity to rethink testing. Sadly, I have not received a response from any of them, even after personally approaching and rewriting them.
What this has taught me is that one voice is not enough, and to make a difference in our democracy, the people must speak with a unified voice. I encourage everyone concerned about the damage being done by high-stakes testing and inadequate funding of public education to speak out. Join me in just saying no to high-stakes testing.
Vol. 24, Issue 41, Page 46Published in Print: June 22, 2005, as Why I Didn’t Graduate