Educational Testing: When to Welcome an Outsider’s Assessment

The latest report on US high school graduation rates brings good news.  The 2014-2015 academic year shows the graduation rate has risen to 83%.  Higher graduation rates were achieved by all demographic segments.  Yet, compared with White students, there are persisting shortfalls among Black, Latino, and Native American students.  Unfortunately, some find the higher graduation rates disturbing because they conflict with results revealed by the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 

NAEP shows high school seniors posting lower reading scores in 2015 than in 1992 and math scores that are static over the past decade.  Graduation rates result from the idiosyncratic decisions at about 37,000 high schools, but NAEP assessments are administered uniformly using the same sets of test booklets across the nation. NAEP results serve as a common metric for all states and selected urban districts. Nevertheless, NAEP is one of the standardized tests that some feel are unnecessary.

Some local educators are heroic in their ability to lead students to academic success.  Some school districts set curriculum that calls for high levels of student achievement and some districts expect less.   As a result, it is nearly impossible to compare the merit of “graduation” from one school district with “graduation” from another. 

A prospective employer cannot infer much about skills from a high school graduation certificate.   Indeed, universities find that among recent high school “graduates”, about 20% need remedial courses to repair inadequate mastery of high school subjects.   Among high school graduates flowing into community colleges, 60% need remedial courses.  In some communities, high school graduation is more a “rite of passage” than an academic milestone.  Those failures of readiness for college suggest that the graduation rates claimed by high schools are somewhat self-serving.

That is unacceptable.  Even graduates who have no plans to go to college will need good oral and written communication skills. They will need arithmetic skills just to do basic planning for their family and they will need grounding in civics to be a good citizen.  If the graduate hopes for a career in a STEM field, coding had better be one of his or her skills on leaving high school.  A school “letter” earned for extracurricular participation will count for nothing in the job market shortly after graduation.  The meaning of graduate cannot be flimsy or merely a social promotion.  When that is the case, the student, the community and those who fund education are all short changed. 

Educators and some parents resent questioning their local school’s quality and they object even more to nationwide standardized tests.  But, education is not the only government function that sometimes needs an outside expert to review procedures and performance on behalf of the local residents.  Take for example the uncomfortable audits of local police force behavior conducted by the federal Department of Justice (DoJ).  Once the DoJ moves beyond mugging for the camera and the pompous sermons about the history of civil rights, the investigators usually do a thorough job assessing whether local police follow proper procedures and it identifies instances of behavior that did not.  On occasion there will be practices (such as “stop and frisk” or “broken windows”) that seem effective and meet community standards but which create resentment in some groups and fail constitutionality in the DoJ’s opinion.  Those differences will be aired publicly.  After tempers are extinguished and egos mended, the local police force will resume operating, but more fairly under improved procedures for the community.  There is a constructive role for outside assessment.

Standardized student tests reveal areas where students are not getting the right amount or kind of help.   Educator and parent egos need not be disjointed for longer than it takes to improve on the next standardized test.  Standardized tests are not a personal attack on educators, they are just an important validation of results especially when taxpayer money is paying for the education of our future leaders.

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