School & District Management

Study Notes Trend Toward More Testing in High School

By Catherine Gewertz — December 21, 2010 2 min read
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Coming soon to a high school near you (if it hasn’t already): more testing. That’s according to a new report.

In its ninth annual examination of high school exit-exam trends, issued today, the Center on Education Policy analyzes a handful of intertwined trends that, taken together, suggest a net increase in testing is taking shape for high school students. [UPDATE (2:28 p.m.): See my story on the report on EdWeek’s website.]

One of the center’s findings, for instance, is a steady increase in the number of states using an exit exam (some kind of test students must pass in order to graduate). Indeed, it finds that three-quarters of the nation’s high school students now live in exit-exam states. Only half did when the CEP did its first exit-exam study in 2002.

Trend lines also point to another thing: More states are using end-of-course tests—tests that cover the material contained in only one course—rather than comprehensive math-and-English exams that might cover years of material. (This is true regardless of how states use those end-of-course tests; some tie them to graduation, and some don’t. But either way, they’re getting more popular.)

Additionally, more states are requiring students to take one of the widely known college-admissions exams, such as the ACT or the SAT, or a workplace-readiness test such as WorkKeys, the CEP study found. More states also are requiring some kind of portfolio-based assessment or senior project, the study found.

What does all that add up to? According to CEP President Jack Jennings, it adds up to an increase in testing in high school. In fact, that trend stood out so clearly this year that the center changed the title they’ve given all the previous reports in this series. The title has always begun with the phrase, “State High School Exit Exams.” But this year, it’s called “State High School Tests: Exit Exams and Other Assessments.”

Subtle? Yeah, probably. But there’s a point here. Jennings says the new title better reflects the reality of the shift the center is seeing. Now it’s more high school testing, not just more high-stakes high school testing.

There’s another dynamic being stirred into the high school assessment pot this year, as well: common standards and assessments. The study notes that most of the states with exit exams have adopted the new set of K-12 learning goals and are participating in the federally funded consortia that are designing new assessments for the new standards.

What could this portend for high school testing? It might be one of the forces fueling more testing, and it might not be.

Worth noting: Some states that do not have exit exams have joined the common-standards-and-assessments movement. Does that mean they will tie the new high school-level tests to graduation? Not necessarily. Does it mean there will be more tests? Maybe, if the early visions of the consortia keep their shape. Both groups envision versions of a “through course” or “distributed” assessment that would occur more than once per year. At this early stage of the game, there is more waiting and watching to do than knowing. But lots of dynamics are worth tracking.

As for the overall trend of more testing in high school, whether that’s a good or bad thing depends partly, of course, on your perspective on assessment. And partly, Jennings says, on the quality of those assessments. But bottom line, he says, is that more testing is on the way, and it has the potential to improve high schools. Whether it will actually do so is one of the many things in the wait-and-watch column.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.