Why schools should stop using exit exams

Here’s a piece on exit exams from P.L. Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina. He edited the 2013 book “Becoming and Being a Teacher,” and wrote the 2012 book, “Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education.” This was published on his blog, the becoming radical.

By P.L. Thomas

As the first decade of the 21st Century drew to an end, Frederick Douglass High School (Maryland) stood as a contradiction of social history, education and racial promise, the claimed failures of public schools, and the essential flaws in high-stakes accountability.

Focusing on Douglass High, documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond detailed [in their 2008 HBO documentary Hard Time at Frederick Douglass High] the realities of both day-to-day schooling in a high-poverty, majority-minority public schools and the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), enacted in 2001 with 100% proficiency requirements mandated for 2014.

Toward the end of the film, a voice-over explains that the accountability guidelines in place during the filming excluded exit exam data from graduation requirements for students, but those test scores were included in NCLB accountability decisions about the school and its administration and faculty. Panning across the test room and the voice-over reveal many students with their heads down during those tests.

While standardized testing has been a key component of education in the United States for a century, the accountability movement and the impact of high-stakes testing entered mainstream education in the early 1980s. One of the first uses of high-stakes testing then was the introduction of the exit exam, designed to prevent students from being passed along through the system and thus graduating without what proponents called basic skills. South Carolina was one of the first states to commit fully to the accountability movement, establishing standards, state tests, and linking graduation to exit exams.

In 2013, legislation in South Carolina would abandon the exit exam, according to The State newspaper:

S.C. high school students would no longer have to pass an exit exam to graduate if a state House bill becomes law–welcome news for the thousands of students who struggle year after year to pass both the test’s math and English sections.

However, The State said this bill does not mean the state will stop implementing those tests:

Because the test is used to determine whether S.C schools and school districts meet state and federal accountability standards, students still would be required to take the exam.

Sponsors and supporters of this bill should receive credit for recognizing the inherent flaw in honoring one data point (the exit exam) over years of multiple data points (course grades, course credits, GPA). In fact, deciding to drop student accountability for exit exam scores is justified by decades of data on the SAT, revealing that SAT scores remain less credible evidence of student readiness for college than GPA.

However, ending high-stakes consequences for students taking exit exams doesn’t go nearly far enough. South Carolina, and states across the United States, must end high-stakes testing and begin focusing reform and resources on the conditions of learning and teaching before outcomes can be evaluated in any valid way.

The current plan is flawed and incomplete in the following ways:

  • Just as NCLB has proven to have unintended and detrimental consequences, maintaining teacher and school accountability on an exam that students themselves have no investment in can lead only to the exact scene depicted in Hard Times at Douglass High—disengaged students and invalid test data. At the end of the documentary, viewers learn that the state takes over the school and replaces the administration, again based on testing many students had essentially felt no obligation to attempt.
  • High-stakes testing has now been exposed as an ineffective reform policy in education. Continuing down the new standards and new tests path is no longer reform, but digging a deeper hole in the status quo.
  • Holding teachers and schools accountable for the outcomes of students is a misuse of accountability since, as scholar and The New York Times columnist Stanley Fish explains, teachers cannot be “responsible for the effects of [their] teaching, whereas, in fact, [they] are responsible only for its appropriate performance.” In other words, ending student, teacher, and school accountability based on high-stakes tests must be replaced by policies that address the conditions of learning and teaching provided for all students by schools and teachers.
  • Ultimately, high-stakes testing is an inefficient drain on state tax dollars; the testing machine and the constant creation, field-testing, and implementation of high-stakes tests fails to produce valid data, but lines the pockets of the testing industry at the expense of public funds.

Should states end using exit exams and other high-stakes tests as gatekeepers for graduation and grade promotion? Yes.

But the current plan to continue implementing exit exams as accountability data for schools and teachers fails to recognize that the problems are the tests themselves and how they are used.

The era of high-stakes testing itself must end, and in its place, let’s instead invest our time and tax dollars on the conditions of learning and teaching.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · May 27, 2013