Testing the Limits

May 01, 2003 5 min read

It’s the question on many educators’ minds these days: When it comes to high-stakes tests, should you try to beat ‘em or join ‘em?

Since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002, at least 24 states have implemented or are phasing in standardized exams required for high school graduation, and reaction from the school community is wide-ranging. In Boston, for example, where the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System becomes a graduation requirement with this year’s senior class, a group of educators formed a community coalition to tutor seniors at risk of failing. Elsewhere in the state, school officials challenged the test’s importance by announcing plans to award local diplomas or certificates of achievement in lieu of state diplomas to students who fail it.

The following are examples of how groups across the country are dealing with the proliferation of increasingly significant standardized testing.


Where: Curie Metropolitan High School, Chicago, Illinois.

Testing Requirement: The Chicago Academic Standards Examinations, administered twice a year to all high school students, test proficiency in 11 different courses. The exams count for at least 10 percent of kids’ final grades.

Reaction: This past fall, a dozen teachers at Curie, the second-largest high school in the city, announced they would not administer the CASE, instead offering their own semiannual exams based on state and city standards, supplemented by individual and class portfolios.

Why: The teachers disliked that the CASE tested only a small number of the 30 goals outlined in the Illinois Learning Standards, required schools to devote the two weeks before the tests to preparation, and included confusing and misleading questions, according to Martin McGreal, a Curie English teacher and spokesman for the group. “It wasn’t just teaching certain things,” he says. “They would let you know which authors would be tested. It got so if you had to do a research paper, teachers would say, ‘It’s not on the CASE.’”

Outcome: Based on flaws in the exam pointed out by the Curie group as well as several years’ worth of other CASE protests, the Chicago board of education canceled both of this year’s exams and is currently evaluating whether to reform or replace the test.


Where: Massachusetts.

Testing Requirement: The MCAS, which tests competency in language arts, math, and science, is given near the end of the school year to public elementary, middle, and high school students. Students must pass the high school exam between 10th and 12th grades to receive a diploma.

Reaction: Eight Massachusetts seniors who failed the test at least once have sued the state board of education for hinging graduation on the MCAS. At a March 25 hearing, the students asked a judge to invalidate the requirement.

Why: “What you have is a board’s regulation requiring a high stakes exam,” says Thomas Frongillo, one of the students’ lawyers. “We consider that illegal.” He explains that the MCAS tests only a few of the seven subjects in which the state requires students to demonstrate competency to graduate. State law also calls for students to be assessed by a variety of measures—so linking graduation to just one test, the MCAS, is unlawful, Frongillo contends.

Outcome: The students were still awaiting a decision at press time.


Where: T.C. Williams High School, Alexandria, Virginia.

Testing Requirement: Standards of Learning tests are given three times a year in 11 subjects; high school students are required to take any tests associated with their classes. Beginning with the class of 2004, kids need to pass six SOLs for a standard diploma, nine for an advanced- studies diploma.

Reaction: To encourage students to take the test seriously, Williams High principal John Porter announced last year that juniors and seniors could raise their final grade in a class by half a letter if they passed the SOL exam in that subject.

Why: Because the SOL wasn’t a state graduation requirement for those students, Porter notes, “there’s no reason, other than being a good guy, for [them] to want to do well on the test.” Upperclassmen were unmoved by staff encouragement to do their best out of personal pride and to reflect positively on the school, so administrators opted to provide a tangible incentive.

Outcome: The overall pass rate for Williams students improved, though Porter acknowledges that the grade incentive might not be the only reason. Administrators are considering the incentive again for this year’s seniors but plan to drop it once the test becomes a graduation requirement.


Where: Seminole County, Florida.

Testing Requirement: The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, administered each spring, measures reading, writing, and mathematics competency for students in grades 3-10. Kids in 3rd grade must meet reading requirements before moving up, and high schoolers must pass the 10th grade test to receive a diploma.

Reaction: In late February, Longwood residents Hugh and JoAnn McAllister decided to keep their 9- and 13-year-old daughters home on test days after reading about a school board member from another county who planned to do the same with her kids.

Why: “This kind of pass-fail test is counterproductive,” Hugh McAllister says, calling the FCAT “a method that is wrong to achieve a goal that is right.” McAllister explains that he does not oppose standards-based testing in general but that he would like to see the results used for broader systemwide improvements and not applied to individual students.

Outcome: Although state law doesn’t specify any consequences for missing the test before high school, an administrator sent the McAllisters a letter after finding out about their intended boycott, stating that a social worker would visit if their children were absent during testing. The couple decided to allow their daughters to take the exams this year while they investigated their rights. The McAllisters have since become active in FCAT reform and want the girls to “sit in” without actually participating in the test next year.

—Lani Harac

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