States Mull Best Way to Assess Their Students for Graduation

By Catherine Gewertz — May 11, 2007 8 min read
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Texas, which has helped shape key tenets of the standards and accountability movement, is on the brink of revamping the way it assesses high school students for graduation. Instead of testing knowledge that students accumulate over several years, the state would test what students learn in each course.

A bill passed by the Texas Senate last month would replace the 4-year-old Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, at the high school level with 12 end-of-course tests in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. Students would take the tests as they completed each course. The measure could come before the Texas House of Representatives this month.

The proposal signals a potentially important shift in thinking, and one that is gaining momentum. Of the 22 states that required students to pass an exit exam to graduate in 2006, four used end-of-course tests, and three more will do so by 2012, according to the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group that tracks trends in high school exit exams. Texas’ move, which would take effect with freshmen in the fall of 2009, would make eight states that use end-of-course tests.

Most states with exit exams use a broad-based test aligned to their academic standards, an approach that has been criticized for requiring review of multiple years’ and classes’ material. A few states use minimum-competency tests, which have come under attack for setting the bar too low, since they typically gauge middle-school-level skills.

A Look at Exit Exams

End-of-course tests focus only on the content taught in a particular class, such as Algebra 1. If the tests are rigorous and aligned with the course content, they can help guide and deepen instruction.

Comprehensive tests are typically aligned to a state’s academic standards, but the approach has been criticized for promoting mastery of too much material, with too little depth, and requiring teachers to spend too much time on review.

Minimum-competency tests, which are on the wane, have come under attack for setting the bar too low, since they typically gauge skills at the middle school level.

SOURCE: Education Week

The growing popularity of end-of-course tests reflects discontent with both the comprehensive and minimum-competency approaches, experts say. The praise and concern sparked by Texas’ proposal illustrate how difficult it is to find the best way to assess what high school graduates should know. And the state’s high profile ensures that its efforts will draw attention.

“It’s a large state, and it’s been a flagship for reform, so people will watch what goes on there pretty carefully,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy.

A Tighter Focus

For the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, high school students take 10 tests in math, science, social studies, and English language arts between 9th and 11th grades. To graduate, they must pass the four tests that are given in 11th grade. The Texas legislation would not affect the TAKS given to students in grades 3-8.

Texas Sen. Florence Shapiro, a Republican and co-author of the bill that was approved April 19, said she and others have grown unhappy with the TAKS because it is so broad that teachers must sacrifice depth and rigor to prepare students for it.

“With TAKS, our teachers would have to put aside whatever they were teaching, and then reach back and review all that’s been taught over the prior two years when other teachers had their students,” she said.

In a recent poll by the 51,000-member Texas Federation of Teachers, 84 percent of the responding teachers said they had been encouraged to do “drill and practice” for the TAKS. Nearly half said they spent half or more of their class time preparing for it.

When the Center on Education Policy studied Jackson, Miss., which uses end-of-course tests, and Austin, Texas, which uses the comprehensive TAKS, it found that the Jackson teachers focused on current course content in preparing for the test, while the Austin teachers reported having to review material from previous years or classes.

Sen. Shapiro said testing at the end of each course would enable teachers to delve more deeply into their subjects, since the test would focus only on that content, and would offer a clearer picture of what students had accomplished during that course. Teachers also would not be held responsible for previous classes’ material.

If truly aligned to course content, an end-of-course test can help merge the goals of teaching and of testing, and can alter the often-negative connotation of “teaching to the test,” said John H. Bishop, who has studied types of high school exit exams as an associate professor of human-resource studies at Cornell University.

“What you want is an exam you’d be proud to teach to,” he said.

Kris Kaase, the associate superintendent of academic education in Mississippi, which requires end-of-course tests for graduation, said they are more useful than broader, more comprehensive tests in helping educators adjust content and instruction.

“If an exam that doesn’t cover any specific course isn’t getting good results, it’s difficult to tell which teachers or courses to target that effort to,” he said.

Proponents say that end-of-course tests can be a powerful tool in boosting course rigor and standardizing course content; whatever curriculum the Algebra 1 test covers, for instance, is what all courses must cover. But while that can be true, some experts say, the risk is that in the face of accountability pressure, the bar for course and test content could be lowered, thereby standardizing mediocrity.

“End-of-course tests can promote a level of consistency in content across courses, schools, and districts, and those tests can be a lot more rigorous,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that has studied graduation-test content as part of its work to help schools better prepare students for college and work.

“But what are the mechanisms in place to ensure that the tests themselves are really rigorous measures of course content?” Mr. Cohen said. “This doesn’t work unless you attend to the other issues as well. You need good standards for the courses and tests that actually measure that.”

Compensating or Excusing?

One aspect of Texas’ proposed new system that has drawn both praise and skepticism is its “compensatory” approach: Students wouldn’t have to pass every end-of-course test to graduate. They would have to average a cumulative score of 70 percent across the 12 tests, essentially allowing them to make up for weakness in one area with strength in another.

Rob D’Amico, a spokesman for the Texas Federation of Teachers, said the compensatory approach would be better than having to pass every section. Riding on the results are not only high school graduation, but also decisions such as school restructuring under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and teacher incentive pay.

“Averaging it out eases the high-stakes nature of it,” Mr. D’Amico said of the testing plan.

Still, the TFT, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, remains concerned about the “climate” surrounding a test on which so much depends.

“Our concern is that you take away overemphasis on one test and replace it with overemphasis on another,” Mr. D’Amico said.

Sen. Shapiro said the proposal was designed to reduce pressure by rendering “no one test [the] sole factor in decisionmaking.” She said all students have academic strengths and weaknesses, so they need the flexibility of having their scores averaged.

The fact that the measure passed by the Texas Senate establishes no bottom-line cutoff score for each test signals potential trouble to some observers.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates a rigorous curriculum for all students, questioned whether allowing the averaging of students’ results ultimately would support the goal of ensuring high achievement.

“The compensatory approach is always appealing in the abstract,” she wrote in an e-mail. “[But] do we really want strength, for example, with numbers to excuse a system from not equipping kids with decent reading and writing skills?”

The argument that an average of 70 percent assures a certain level of overall mastery doesn’t hold much weight when the tests’ content is not yet established, Ms. Haycock said.

States that use end-of-course tests have wrestled with and resolved that issue in different ways.

In Tennessee, which switched from a minimum-competency test to end-of-course tests for high school graduation in 2001, students must score in the “proficient” range on each of three required “gateway” tests, and the results also count as 15 percent of their grades. (Scores would count as 15 percent of students’ course grades under Texas’ plan as well.)

“We find this [method] promotes rigor, and when it’s part of students’ grades, they take more responsibility for doing well,” said Dan Long, Tennessee’s executive director of assessment and e-learning.

Setting a Floor

In Mississippi, which began its end-of-course tests with the class of 2006, scores don’t count toward students’ course grades. They must pass all four tests to graduate, but the cut score they must reach—in the “basic” range—is lower than the “proficiency” scores schools and districts must show to comply with federal accountability rules, said Mr. Kaase, the associate superintendent.

“We’ve been discussing the level of achievement that’s right for graduation, and whether we need to raise the level” of skills required to ensure strong work and college preparation, he said.

Maryland, which is phasing in required end-of-course tests with the class of 2009, tried to incorporate flexibility and a “skills floor” into its model. Students can pass by reaching a certain cut score on each of four tests, which produces a total score of 1,602, or use a “combined-score option,” which allows them to fall below some subjects’ cut scores by 7 to 10 points as long as their total score still reaches 1,602.

Ronald A. Peiffer, Maryland’s deputy superintendent for academic policy, said the combined-score option was initially designed to allow special education students enough leeway to graduate, but it “absolutely” served to offset potentially high failure rates during the phase-in.

The option will be a permanent fixture of the system, he said, because it allows students some flexibility without sacrificing appropriate levels of achievement.

“We do have certain minimum scores, and those aren’t insignificant,” Mr. Peiffer said.

Some experts contend that end-of-course tests are most effective when their scores affect not only a student’s grades and graduation, but also their public recognition and college placement.

Mr. Bishop, the Cornell University professor, suggested that students might be even more inclined to work hard for high scores on end-of-course tests if their diplomas distinguished excellent scores from merely competent ones, or if state college systems used high end-of-course scores in such decisions as course placements, as some public colleges in New York state do.

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week as States Mull Best Way to Assess Their Students for Graduation

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