GOODMAN: High-Stakes Tests Don’t Help Students Learn. Why Don’t We Try This New Model Instead?

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Ten years ago Robert Goodman, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (NJCTL), wrote a paper exploring a new way of gauging student mastery of content called the “Rich Transcript Model.” Instead of high-stakes state standardized tests in just reading, math, and science, students would take rigorous, teacher-designed,  end-of-year assessments that would accelerate their learning and improve educational efficiency and school effectiveness. Unlike NJ’s current “watered-down” high school graduation test, the new model would not be tied to diplomas  but would focus on critical thinking and continuous improvement in all coursework, including music, art, and technology.  

Here we are a decade later, still in the same boat of teachers forced to over-emphasize instruction subject to standardized testing and students forced to under-emphasize their learning in other subjects just as essential to success in colleges and careers. Goodman’s paper is especially relevant, given the educational  disruption caused by the COVID pandemic. The only updates are the names of tests, required course content, and federal law.

The purpose of this paper is to describe a new approach to address a fatal flaw in past attempts to improve student achievement in New Jersey, and the United States. This is an approach that  may cut through the Gordian knot that has tied up educational progress for too long; to try  something that holds the promise of dramatic success. 

During the past decade, to a great extent due to No Child Left Behind and its update called the Every Student Succeeds Act, there has been an attempt to mandate rigor through the prescription of high stakes tests: tests which must be passed in order to graduate high school. This experiment has been tried repeatedly, without achieving promised gains. If this approach worked, the U.S. would lead the world in student achievement…it does not. In New Jersey, and many states, that approach has led to the  creation of weak tests in a narrow set of subject areas; low required passing scores that do not  indicate college or career readiness; and pathways around the required tests that reduce the meaning and value of a high school diploma. 

The straw man alternative to this approach of high stakes tests with mandated passing scores is to not test at all; to give up on the idea of rigor altogether. But that is not a real option in a  globally competitive world. Fortunately, it is not the only option.  

The Rich Transcript Model (RTM) represents a middle path between these two approaches; it holds the promise of the rapid improvement of student learning, educational efficiency, and school effectiveness. The described approach has never before been tried, to my knowledge, but there is good reason to believe that it may represent the shift in perspective that is  necessary to achieve a breakthrough that could help make New Jersey, and eventually the United States, a world leader in education. 

This approach is based on the American entrepreneurial spirit; it is an American approach to the challenge of dramatically improving our system of education. It relies on transparency rather than mandates and continuous improvement rather than arbitrary lines in the sand. This would be a bold experiment, but done with care it could change the global position of our state and country. While it may seem safer to do a new improved version of what has failed before, that safety is an illusion. The truly safest path is the path that has the best chance to succeed. 

The Academic Component of College and Career Readiness 

One component of college and career readiness is that minimum set of skills required to begin taking courses at a county college: this is currently defined, in New Jersey and many other states, by the Accuplacer tests in mathematics and language arts. Soon this will likely be defined by tests aligned to the Common Core, now called the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS), for mathematics and language arts. While this component is necessary, it is not sufficient for a student to be deemed college or career ready. 

There are no  standards for subjects other than mathematics and language arts, nor are there plans to do so. The Common Core is only for those two subject areas (although there are literacy standards for history and science, but these do not pertain to the content of those subjects and do not replace science and history standards). Students could meet the Common Core/NJSLS standards without any meaningful knowledge of science, history, art, music, engineering, vocational courses, world languages, etc. They would hardly be college or career ready.  

College and career readiness is better defined by New Jersey graduation requirements (updated to reflect the Common Core/NJSLS standards), which are scheduled to become increasingly rigorous in the coming years. These graduation requirements reflect the need for high school students to learn much more than just reading, writing and mathematics. All students need to  have a broad exposure to many subject areas so that they can become more knowledgeable citizens; develop lifelong interests; develop the “soft” skills needed to work in the 21st century;  and identify an area for which they have a passion…something they may want to pursue as a career. Only through exposure to a range of subjects, and then going on to pursue high levels of mastery in one or more of those, will a student become college or career ready. 

A New Look for End-of-Course Assessments

However, determining student progress requires End-of-Course (EOC) assessments for all required courses. EOC assessments are the only way to set, and measure, fair and reasonable  expectations for what students should know and be able to do in each subject area. If only certain subjects are assessed, those subjects will become emphasized, at the expense of the others. The balanced picture provided by the graduation requirements would be distorted by  the pressure for schools to perform well only on the assessed subjects.  

Some of the listed subjects will require more than one EOC assessment. For instance, one course in Visual and Performing Arts is required for graduation; however, that could be in art, music, theater arts, dance, etc. The world language requirement could be met in many different languages. Assessments will need to be available for all the courses that could satisfy each of  the graduation requirements; there will be many such cases, requiring many EOC assessments.

Teachers must believe in the quality of the EOC assessments and be instrumental in designing  them for the courses they teach. If teachers view the assessments as valid, they will drive themselves to improve their students’ performance on them. The unproductive choice between improving test results and educating students would be eliminated. Well-educated students would do better on assessments, so those two goals merge. Also, by reducing the gaps  between the written, taught, and assessed curricula, time will not be wasted preparing students to take tests: the best preparation for the assessment will be the course itself. 

EOC assessments could take many forms as long as they can be graded in a manner that is consistent between teachers and schools across the state or the country; each school district developing its own EOC tests would not provide sufficient visibility. While many could look like traditional tests, they won’t have to. For example, art courses could involve posting art projects, with student IDs but no names, online so they could be graded by panels of teachers around  the state, and provide for a statewide virtual art show. Similarly, music and dance  performances, world language dialogs, etc. could be digitally sent to teachers who can grade  them online.  

Technology enables the creation of multiple forms of standardized assessments; provides for standardized grading by teachers across the state; and provides the communication, within and between schools, for teachers to take a lead role in developing assessments. This can be done through statewide synchronous and asynchronous communication and wiki type approaches: a 21st century solution to a problem that eluded 20th century approaches. 

EOC assessments need to be rigorous and assess higher level skills and thinking: current  assessments are often designed to assess low level skills; driving teaching and learning lower as  well. If all students needed to pass all assessments, there would be pressure to make the tests easier and passing scores lower. Higher order skills would not be tested since they are difficult to teach and would lead to unacceptably high numbers of students failing assessments and not  graduating. Since higher order skills would not be tested, they would not be emphasized. So, even in the tested subjects, meaningful student learning would decline with time. 

Let’s Eliminate the High School Graduation Test Requirement

That leads to an important conclusion: Passing EOC assessments must not be a graduation requirement. Requiring students to pass all assessments would result in watered-down assessments, low required passing scores, and/or very low graduation rates. Requiring students to pass some, but not all, of the assessments would distort the balance provided by the graduation requirements by leading schools to only emphasize those tests that must be passed for a student to graduate.  

We have clear experience to guide us in this: an excellent example of a test that has that level of depth and breadth is the American Diploma Project Algebra I test. Less than one fourth of New Jersey students passed that test. If it had been required for graduation, that one test would have eliminated three quarters of New Jersey students from graduating. Even if hard work doubled the number who passed that test in the near- or mid-term, that would still lead  to more than half of New Jersey students failing to graduate due to one test. If they also had to pass multiple other, similarly rigorous, tests in other courses, graduation rates would become very low. 

On the other hand, we have the example of experience of Advanced Placement (AP)  examinations (very rigorous EOC assessments) and how they drive continuous improvement without using a high stakes approach. Passing the AP exam (scoring a 3, 4 or 5) is not required in order to pass an AP course. In fact, in 2011 27% of New Jersey students did not “pass” their  AP exam (scoring a 1 or 2), even though these are usually some of the top students in the state.  Research shows that those students will still have gained enormously by having taken the  course and the assessment, even without passing it. Exposure to that level of rigor has been shown to be very important in preparing students for college or university. If students knew they would fail the course if they failed the EOC exam, AP participation would plummet, to no good effect. However, it is possible to compare students’ grades in a course and their grades on the AP exam and use that gap to drive the continuous improvement of instruction so that more students pass the AP exam each year. This is the path we should be taking with all EOC exams. 

That sort of visibility rather than high stakes compliance needs to be what drives the  preparation of students for college and career readiness. Since “passing” the EOC assessments  would not be required for graduation, the pressure to lower the bar will be much reduced. The composite of the courses each student takes, and their grades on the matching state  assessments, which would be required on their transcript, would present each employer, college or university with an accurate picture of what the student knows and can do. Local schools would be free to create their own graduation requirements, but the transcripts of all students could be compared. This puts more meaning into the transcript, and takes the  pressure out of the current binary outcome of either graduating or not-graduating. The  transcript would present a fuller picture of what each student knows and can do. 

Colleges, unions and employers would be encouraged to indicate the tests, and test scores, that they consider the minimum requirement for entry into their school or organization. That would  apply not only to county colleges, but also to unions and employers who do academic testing of potential members or employees. By making these entry requirements public, students would  be able to prepare themselves for entry into their chosen field, with the help of their schools, parents and teachers, not be surprised to find themselves denied entry into a field, or required to take remedial courses…the current situation for many students when they graduate high school but fail to reach the required score on an Accuplacer test at the county college.

Students should be able to retake EOC assessments to improve their score. This would become  especially common among those tests for which minimum scores have been posted by colleges,  employers or unions, as students may find they are below the minimum accepted score for what they want to do. This would push the process of remediation to the K-12 system, and avoid disappointment when students try to use their high school diploma to progress into college or career. 

Also, students should be able to satisfy graduation requirements by passing the EOC assessment, without having to take a course. The course should help them do well on that  assessment, but if they can do well without the course, they should be encouraged to do so.  This could free up time for students to pursue greater depth in subjects for which they have a  passion, by satisfying pre-requisite course requirements in their field of interest or by satisfying graduation requirements in a course outside their field of interest. Students could make use of  online courses, summer courses, college courses, informal learning, etc. While this may speed up graduation for a very small number of students, most students would benefit by being able to focus on taking more advanced courses in subjects for which they have a passion. 

This approach will also enable the creation of a strong system of school evaluation and continuous improvement. Posting all the aggregate results, for each assessment, on each school’s NJ School Performance Report would make visible how schools are doing with their work of educating students. These public results will allow schools, and districts, to be compared with one another. They will also allow a school’s, or a district’s, current results to be compared with its prior results. A cycle of continuous improvement, with a subject by subject focus, would be  established. Giving rewards, especially recognition, to districts that have good results, or are showing improvement, would be a positive way to drive improvement. This can take many  forms,but the data must first be created…then it can be used.

This paper expresses the opinion of the author; it does not reflect the position of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning, Bergen County Technical Schools, or any other organization. 

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