In defense of testing

Test-based accountability has done little to improve student performance and graduation exams have done harm by lowering graduation rates, concludes a National Research Council study. But the study distorted the evidence to confirm the panel’s anti-testing bias, writes Eric Hanushek in Grinding the Anti-Testing Ax on Education Next.

Test-based accountability hasn’t raised U.S. achievement to the same level as the highest-achieving countries worldwide, the report complains. That’s an “extraordinary” and unrealistic goal, writes Hanushek. The real question is whether it’s raised achievement significantly. He argues that it has, even by the report’s lowball estimate.

The report also claims graduation exams “decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement,” and urges states to repeal their requirements.

The best evidence suggests 2 percent of students drop out because they can’t pass a graduation exam, Hanushek writes.  People who can’t pass a 10th-grade exam by the end of 12th grade aren’t likely to be high earners if they’re handed a diploma. “The economic impact on these students will be much lower than the average difference between graduate and dropout.”

Perhaps the best argument against exit exams is simple: If a student shows up for school for 12-plus years and cannot pass a 10th-grade exam, it must be the school’s fault, and it would be unfair to hold the student responsible. This argument, interestingly enough, is the precise opposite of one of the primary arguments against the testing and accountability provisions of NCLB: We should not hold schools responsible for low achievement, because achievement is affected by student motivation and family background characteristics beyond the school’s control. Taken together, the arguments embedded in the committee’s two conclusions imply that nobody—not schools, not teachers, not even students themselves—bears responsibility for low student achievement.

If we really want to maximize high school graduation, we can eliminate teacher-given exams, lower course requirements and hand out diplomas after 10 or 11 years of schooling, Hanushek writes. Certainly, the NRC should tell states not to require more math or adopt college- and career-ready standards, since raising standards will lower graduation rates.

We didn’t advocate an end to testing, Boston University’s Kevin Lang, a member of the NRC panel, told the Huffington Post.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The *graduation* from high school is a ceremonial endorsement, substantively useful only insofar as it is an information-carrying signal.

    It’s impossible to “do harm” by introducing an exit exam and thereby lowering graduation rates; it’s only possible to change the signal. The underlying conditions are exactly the same in either case.

    Well, that’s not entirely true. There could be “harm” — but if so it’s the harm of taking away from someone that to which they were never entitled in the first place.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    And maybe I’m just dim… but I don’t get why anyone would think that a test, even a program of testing, could possibly increase achievement.

    All it can do is change incentives.

    OK, put the incentives in place, then look to see what teachers/students do differently.

    There’s your reform — the actual changes that people make. It’s not the test. At best the tests are a measuring tool.

    And perhaps an enforcement tool of sorts to make sure that the specified changes get made.

    Once you’ve figured them out.

  3. Why don’t we just admit that we are never going to reach the point where everyone is going to be proficent and go to/graduate college?

    Then we can concentrate on ensuring that everyone receives basic levels of literacy and numeracy along with some life skills and vocational education.

    The answer?

    Demographic inequality

  4. The graduation exams have harmed instruction for the top students. The focus is on getting marginal students to proficient.

    Our public schools are forced to focus on mediocrity. When compared to other countries, where the most advanced students must compete to be the best on demanding exams to qualify to attend a university, our national exams are set at a low level.

  5. When our schools start focusing on mediocrity, the best and brightest students are often the losers in the process. Some of the best students in the US aren’t even taught in public school, where more often than not, high school is usually a place to go and park a behind for 6-7 hours a day.

    My home state has exit exams, which students MUST pass in order to obtain a high school diploma. The exams themselves aren’t that hard, but recently, some high schools in our area have been using online coursework to facilitate credit recovery for students who do not have enough credits in order to graduate from high school.

    When I attended high school, if you failed a required course for graduation, you did one of two things:

    1. Take the required course next year in order to graduate on time, or

    2. Take the course during summer school

    Some students are so credit deficient that it is IMPOSSIBLE to see how they could make up this much coursework (1 credit = 1 school year of a given class), in the span of 1 to 2 years.

    I’m highly suspect of such credit recovery schemes being employed by the school district in my area (which has between a 40 and 50% high school graduation rate).

    A high school diploma (and in some cases a college degree) isn’t worth what it used to be 25-50 years ago.