States Turn to End-of-Course Tests To Bolster High School Curriculum

By Lynn Olson — June 06, 2001 11 min read
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High school students in Maryland saw a new addition to their coursework this spring: state-mandated end-of-course exams.

The state administered about 300,000 field tests late last month in five subjects: English 1, Algebra 1, geometry, biology, and American government. Starting next year, the test results are slated to be reported on student transcripts, and eventually they could help determine whether students earn a diploma.

Maryland is one of about a dozen states that either have or are preparing such curriculum-based exams as a way to strengthen the high school curriculum and ensure that all students have mastered a core body of knowledge and skills. Such exams are slowly starting to replace the basic-skills tests many states began requiring students to pass in the 1970s to graduate from high school.

“End-of-course testing, in my mind, has as much promise as any set of assessments that we’re using in education,” said Jim Watts, the vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based organization that has been promoting the tests in the South. “A lot of this is not just about testing; it’s about reorganizing high schools to make certain that a challenging curriculum is offered to all students.”

Experts on assessment and education policy argue that the newer tests are an improvement over the minimum-competency tests, which, they say, are set at such a low level that they provide little incentive for students to work hard in school.

What’s more, the traditional exit exams often are not a good match for the course structure in high schools, because they survey what students have learned in mathematics or English or science over several years of instruction, says Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.

“These are not really effective measures of what kids are studying in high school, because they study courses, not cross-cutting basic skills,” he said.

‘More Consistency’

In the United States, the best-known end-of-course tests are probably the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, which are designed to gauge how well students have learned a particular syllabus. But those tests are taken by a relatively small group of college-bound students. And unlike the teacher-written finals that high school students are used to, the new end-of-course exams reflect statewide curriculum standards.

As the term implies, end-of-course exams are administered toward the end of a particular course, such as Algebra 1 or chemistry, and the tests measure the content taught in that class.

For that reason, proponents argue, the tests have the potential to send much clearer signals to both students and teachers about what students should be learning and how instruction can be improved. They can also offer students an incentive to work hard, particularly if the tests count toward their final grades.

“One of the pluses about the end-of-course tests is that the students are taking the test right after they’ve completed the material,” said Louis M. Fabrizio, the director of accountability services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

North Carolina currently has 10 end-of-course tests at the high school level. Students need not pass the exams to earn a diploma. But the scores count for one-quarter of their grades in the relevant courses, and the test results appear on their high school transcripts.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, is one of the public school systems to implement districtwide end-of-course tests for high school students.

“By systematically developing tests that are tied to course content, as opposed to survey tests, we think that the quality of the conversation in schools about test results will be more valuable,” said Mitchell D. Chester, the executive director for accountability and assessment for the 210,000-student district.

“Rather than trying to figure out what the implications of the scores on a survey math test are for the math program,” he said, “you have teachers talking about what the implications of the scores on an algebra test are for the algebra class that they’re teaching. It’s just a much more focused conversation.”

Equally important, Mr. Chester said, the tests have the potential to bring greater equity to the content taught across schools and classrooms. “In Philadelphia,” he noted, “what passes as Algebra 1 from one school to another can be highly varied in terms of the content. So students can get through an Algebra 1 course and earn a credit without having really mastered Algebra 1 material.”

Gene Bottoms, the director of High Schools That Work, a national initiative of the SREB that tries to provide career-bound students with rigorous vocational and academic preparation, believes such tests are already paying off.

Testing data from his program suggest that career-bound youths in states such as North Carolina are outperforming similar students in states without end-of-course exams. In North Carolina, in particular, he said, African-American students in the High Schools That Work sites “are just head and shoulders above similar students in other states.”

“Probably what this means is that, rather than having two versions of Algebra 1, now you’ve got one version, and there’s a common standard you’ve got to meet,” Mr. Bottoms said. “It also means that principals begin to look for very good teachers to teach these fundamental, core courses.”

The downside is that such tests might constrain the curriculum and perhaps even lower standards in high-performing districts. Parents in the affluent suburban district of Scarsdale, N.Y., for example, recently protested against the state regents’ exams, a series of subject-matter tests that New York state students will have to pass to earn a diploma. The parents contend that the prescriptive nature of the tests is causing teachers to narrow and simplify their instruction.

Focus on Academics

John H. Bishop, a professor of economics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has studied the use of curriculum-based testing systems in the United States and abroad. His studies have concluded that 8th graders in New York and North Carolina, two states with end-of-course exams, significantly outperform students in other states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, mathematics, and science. Eighth graders with low grade point averages in states that have such exams also are more likely to attend college than students in states without such tests, he found.

Mr. Bishop argues that such tests have several advantages over traditional minimum-competency exams. They pose more difficult questions and problems, which induces teachers to spend more time on challenging material. They can be used to signal multiple levels of performance, rather than a single pass-or-fail score, Mr. Bishop says, stimulating the bulk of students to greater effort. Because the tests assess the content of specific courses, he adds, teachers inevitably feel more responsible for how well their students do on the exams.

Equally important, Mr. Bishop argues, because the tests are created outside the school, preferably with strong educator involvement, the teachers become partners and coaches, helping their students do battle with the tests.

“It seems to support a culture of student focus on academics, and not the kind of anti-nerd pressure that we have so pervasively here” in the United States, he said.

Mr. Bishop favors a system in which the exams carry modest rewards and penalties, such as factoring scores into final grades—but are not a graduation requirement. “I think that’s a bad idea,” he said. If students must pass the tests to graduate, he contends, the tendency will be to make the tests easier “because you can’t deny diplomas to too high a proportion of kids.”

Varied Approaches

Encouraged by the SREB, the states that have adopted end-of-course exams include many in the South: Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Those and other states have taken a variety of approaches to using such tests.

Students in Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia must pass the tests in at least some of their core academic courses to earn a diploma or will be required to do so in the future. The plan in Philadelphia is for next year’s seniors to pass the tests to earn a diploma or achieve a minimum score on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition. But the district school board is considering delaying the requirement until the class of 2004.

North Carolina’s tests help determine students’ grades, but the state is crafting a separate high school exit exam. A bill now before the legislature also would require the state’s K-12 and higher education systems to explore using the end-of-course tests for college admissions decisions.

California, meanwhile, currently has three types of tests in use or being developed. The Golden State Exams are a voluntary set of end-of-course tests taken primarily by college-bound students. The STAR tests are a combination of nationally normed and standards-based exams for students in grades 2-11, used primarily to judge schools. And a high school exit test is under development. A bill pending in the legislature would attempt to mesh the Golden State and standards-based exams at the high school level.

“We’re trying to be really smart and efficient and not overburden students with tests,” said Kerry Mazzoni, the state secretary of education.

Texas students may use passing scores on some end-of-course exams as an alternative to the state’s 10th grade exit test to earn a diploma. But the state is now writing a more rigorous 11th grade exit test that will incorporate content specific to Algebra 1 and geometry, so it is phasing out the end-of-course exams.

“It would sort of make them redundant,” said Ann Smisko, an associate commissioner in the Texas Education Agency. Meanwhile, a proposal in the Ohio legislature would order the state to devise both end-of-course tests and a new high school exit exam to provide students with more than one way to earn a high school diploma.

“I don’t know how that’s going to fit together,” said Martha H. Wise, a member of the state board of education.

‘Risky Business’

Many of those decisions are pending in Maryland. Originally, the high school exams were to count as a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2005. They will replace the basic-skills tests that high school students now need to pass.

But the state board of education voted last summer to delay using the tests as a graduation requirement until at least 2007, if at all. The decision was made after the legislature fell short on delivering a $49 million package that state education leaders said was needed to help raise student performance. Beginning with the class of 2002, however, students’ test scores will become part of their permanent transcripts in the form of percentile rankings.

Last month, various stakeholders—including representatives from higher education, the business community, teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, and student groups—urged the state board to maintain the momentum on the tests until they have more data.

“It’s the first thing that’s come along of a systemic nature that is causing high school professionals—teachers, administrators, parents—to look at what we’re really doing in our high schools,” said Carl D. Roberts, the superintendent of the 16,000-student Cecil County, Md., school system. “If a decision is made to slow this process down or even to stop it, I don’t think we would get the momentum back.”

While board members agreed, several are wary about tying the tests to a diploma. “My concern is about what I perceive to be a lack of remediation in middle schools and high schools, and students’ lack of ability to succeed on this test, particularly in low-performing schools,” said board member Judith A. McHale.

In interviews, Maryland high school principals said the week of testing had generally proceeded well, despite such logistical concerns as reorganizing class schedules, finding enough proctors to administer the tests, and figuring out what to do with upperclassmen who were not taking the exams.

“We really had to reschedule the whole school for this week,” said Robert J. Kemmery, the principal of the 1,350-student Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County.

“Our major concern is that we get good data back, so that we can adjust strategies to help students be more successful,” said Mr. Kemmery, who is also the president of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals. “Until they give us good feedback, and we can analyze what we’re doing, I don’t think it would be fair to hold this as a graduation requirement. And I believe the state is in line with that.”

Other principals, as well as students, also expressed worries about whether—and when—the state would attach serious consequences to the test results.

“I think that’s kind of weird to have one test affect your whole high school career,” said Alanna Kaufman, a 9th grader at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md.

“It’s kind of strange because, since it’s going to be a state test, it’s the same test for kids who live in different neighborhoods,” said Jeff Stein, another Whitman freshman. “It’s the same curriculum, I guess, but the way we learn it is a lot different, and there are some things that we might not go over as much.”

He also worries that it might not be fair to compare the performance of students in his affluent, suburban community with that of students in less well-to-do neighborhoods.

“There’s some risky business involved here,” agreed Fred Lowenbach, the principal of the 1,600-student Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Md. “I would hope that we do not put kids with special needs and kids who have got language issues at a disadvantage for getting a diploma. I would hope that this good intention does not lead to the bad result of creating a two-tiered society.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as States Turn to End-of-Course Tests To Bolster High School Curriculum


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