Making Sense of Standardized Tests
During the past decade, federal and state education reform efforts have dramatically increased both the use of and attention to student assessments. Commonly referred to as “testing,” assessing student learning through the use of a standardized format can provide valuable information for schools, parents and policymakers. Used inappropriately, these same tests can have serious negative implications for students, particularly those with learning disabilities (LD).
High Standards, High-Stakes
Seeking to move student learning to new heights, states have adopted challenging academic content standards. Today, almost all states have instituted statewide testing programs to measure student achievement against its content standards and 20 states have added “high-stakes” to their statewide assessment systems. Decisions to adopt policies that attach high stakes for students, such as grade promotion and/or awarding of a standard high school diploma, to student performance on statewide assessments are made by state departments of education, boards of education and state legislatures. Such systems have generally undergone years of development, public input and phase-in before students are held to the requirements.
Results on statewide assessments can help guide systemic changes and improvements in teaching and learning. Results can be used to compare achievement across schools, districts and various racial, ethnic, income and other important subgroups of students. And, unlike less standardized forms of measurement, like grades and teacher-made tests, performance on statewide standardized testing gives parents a true picture of how their child is progressing. This is especially important for parents of students with learning disabilities, since recent findings of a large-scale survey of special education students reveal that grades given to students with disabilities at the secondary level have no correlation to real academic functioning. (Source: Youth with Disabilities: The Achievements of Youth with Disabilities During Secondary School. Reports from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) 2003). Unfortunately, many states have allowed students with disabilities to be excluded, or exempted, from participating in statewide assessments, routinely administered out-of-level assessments (intended for students in lower grades), and/or have failed to report the scores of students with disabilities as part of the performance data.
While testing to determine achievement of required skills and knowledge based on high academic standards can provide important information about both teaching and learning, when the score on a single test is used to make high-stakes decisions about individual students, a host of issues emerge. For students with LD, high-stakes testing can lead to increases in grade retention, drop-out and the awarding of alternate types of diplomas that compromise postsecondary opportunities.
No Child Left Behind
While state-driven education reform activities have been underway for well over a decade, the past few years have also brought about major change in federal education policy. Ushered in by enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), states are now required to administer statewide standardized assessments to all students in certain grades and content areas annually.
However, unlike state accountability systems, the testing requirements of NCLB serve only as a mechanism for school accountability. Assessment results, for both total school populations as well as subgroups of students such as those with disabilities, are used to identify schools that need to make substantial improvements in their delivery of instructional services and resulting student achievement. Once identified, schools engage in the development of improvement plans and a range of corrective actions designed to help improve achievement for all students.
Unfortunately, there is a growing misunderstanding that NCLB involves high-stakes decisions for students. This confusion is compounded by the fact that several states are using the same tests to both satisfy NCLB requirements and make high-stakes determinations. Currently 19 states are using the same test for NCLB and graduation and this number is likely to increase. However, such state practices should not lead to the conclusion that NCLB requires high-stakes. In fact, NCLB states that “nothing in this part shall be construed to prescribe the use of the academic assessments described in this part for student promotion or graduation purposes.” [20 U.S.C. § 6311 (l)].
And, while states have allowed exemptions for students with disabilities, NCLB allows no such exemptions. Schools, districts and states are required to test all students and report the results. Test results must also be broken out by critical subgroups of students, such as those with disabilities, limited English proficiency and the economically disadvantaged. This additional requirement has focused new attention on the underperformance of these historically poor performing groups of students.
As parents, educators and policymakers continue their important work of improving the academic achievement of all students and closing the achievement gap for so many who have failed to thrive, it is critical to understand the difference between state-imposed tests that may or may not carry high-stakes for students versus the testing requirements of NCLB. Many states have chosen to implement high-stakes testing for students, most frequently as a requirement for graduation, while NCLB testing carries consequences for schools and school districts. While high-stakes testing can have serious unintended consequences for students with LD, performance on such tests can provide a real picture of true student achievement and help improve instruction.
- State High School Exit Exams: A Maturing Reform, Center on Education Policy. www.cep-dc.org Testing: Setting the Record Straight, Achieve, Inc. www.achieve.org
Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.