College & Workforce Readiness

More Testing Seen for High School Students

By Catherine Gewertz — December 21, 2010 5 min read
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High school is becoming a focus of increased testing, as more states tie diplomas to some type of assessment and require other exams that are not linked to graduation, according to a study released today.

In its ninth annual examination of high school exit-exam trends, the Center on Education Policy notes the continuation of key assessment trends in high school and the addition of new trends that, taken together, suggest a net increase in testing is taking shape for high school students.

“The bottom line is that high schools tomorrow will face more testing, not less,” said Jack Jennings, the center’s president. “It could improve things in high school, but only if it’s done right.”

The Washington-based research and policy group found a continued rise in the number of states using an exit exam, which it defines as a test students must pass in order to graduate. Twenty-eight states now have such requirements, up from 26 in the 2009 report. Three quarters of the nation’s students now attend schools in states that give exit exams. Only half did so when the organization first studied the exit-exam landscape in 2002. (“Study Says to States: Don’t Rush; Provide Support on Exit Exams,” Sept. 4, 2002.)

The popularity of end-of-course exams continues to grow, both in states that use them as a graduation requirement and in states that don’t, the CEP found. The tilt toward end-of-course tests means that more states are requiring exams that examine students’ mastery of the material contained in a specific course, instead of giving a broad, “comprehensive” one in math and English that might cover more than a year of material.

Twenty-three states currently give end-of-course tests. Only seven use them as exit exams, according to the CEP, but another 10 plan to begin doing so.

States increasingly are requiring students to take a college-entrance exam—the ACT or SAT—or a workplace-readiness test such as WorkKeys, the study found. They typically use such tests to gauge how well schools are preparing students for college or work, to pinpoint weak areas in which students need support, or to help students set higher sights for themselves, rather than as graduation requirements. A few use them for federal accountability purposes, or to determine eligibility for state scholarships.

More states also are requiring or considering some form of portfolio assessment, in which students are judged on samples of their work or a senior project, the study says. In some cases, such work is being factored into graduation decisions.

Questions Raised

A new crop of tests, anticipated by 2014, could complicate the picture of high school assessments, as well. They are being designed by two groups of states that have federal grants to craft tests for the new set of common standards that have been adopted so far by 43 states and the District of Columbia. Their plans are still in the early stages, though at the high school level both envision some form of “through-course” or “distributed” design, in which students take varying types of mathematics and English tests during the year, from multiple-choice to more extended or performance-based tasks. Whether that represents a net increase in high school testing will vary state to state, depending on each one’s current testing approach.

Most of the states that use exit exams—23 of the 28—have adopted the common standards and are participating in one of the consortia that are designing new assessments, the study says. How many will ultimately use the new tests, and whether they will use them as graduation requirements, however, are unanswered questions. Nothing in the two consortia’s plans requires states to impose the new tests as graduation requirements, but they are intended to be used in federal accountability systems.

Expanded testing at the high school level could be a valuable step toward a fuller picture of student and school performance, some experts cautioned, but only if it goes hand in hand with the deep work of improving teaching and learning.

“Testing may be necessary, but it is insufficient as a high school reform policy, and it could have the opposite effect,” said Phillip Lovell, the vice president of federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that advocates policies to drive high school improvement. “Unless we’re strengthening the curriculum and the quality of teaching, supporting students who are off-track and undercredited, unless we’re creating a more effective use of time, making the academic experience more personalized and meaningful, we can test all we want, but we’re not going to test our way to increasing achievement and graduation rates.”

Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the alliance who focuses on assessment, said that a more varied constellation of tests in high school could offer a more nuanced, well-rounded picture of student achievement and school effectiveness. Since the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires testing only once in high school, policymakers and educators often have an insufficient sense of how well their students and schools are doing, he said.

Testing across the school year can offer a better picture of student growth, and increased use of end-of-course tests can offer a more accurate picture of what students have learned in each course, rather than what knowledge they brought to school with them, he said.

The changing high school assessment landscape is cause both for optimism and caution, said Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy. Well-designed, thoughtful assessments could offer teachers ongoing feedback to help them guide instruction and could offer students new and improved ways to show with authenticity what they have learned. But there is a real risk, especially in lean budget times, that assessment systems could be poorly designed, aligned, or implemented, leaving high schools and students with a massive testing burden that doesn’t provide a deep or accurate understanding of what is needed for improvement, he said.

That risk multiplies for the most disadvantaged students, Mr. Jennings noted, since some studies have shown that they are the ones who suffer disproportionately when exams are pegged to graduation.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week

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