The other day I was browsing Fark.com and I ran across an article relating the story of a class action lawsuit against the state of Alaska for its new high school graduation exam. The lawsuit is essentially over the fact that many of Alaska's disabled students can't pass the graduation exam, and therefore can't receive a high school diploma. Basically the lawsuit claims it's unfair to expect a retard to take the same test as an average high school student and pass it. Now I know my description here is crass, but it speaks to the fact that this is a very real problem, and as dumb as it sounds, this is true in many states.
Of the people who are outside the realm of education, but think they are experts nonetheless (which is bascially everyone), many believe that graduation exams are a great way to ensure that America's students are learning what they are supposed to learn by the time they graduate high school. Many folks think that a high-stakes graduation test is a good way to keep everyone honest, and to make sure the schools are actually teaching what they are supposed to teach. Testing holds the students and the schools accountable for learning and teaching respectively, and seems a good way to gauge how our country's educational institutions are doing. On the surface, testing is a pretty reasonable solution to the fact that the majority of American students suck and can't even name more than five or six U.S. presidents. When one looks a little deeper, however, there are some real flaws in the system, which is why most teachers hate testing.
Now many proponents of testing say that the only reason teachers dislike testing is because teachers don't like being held accountable for what they are doing in the classroom. Fair enough, and it may even be true in some cases. Lord knows I've met numerous teachers who wouldn't last ten minutes in the business world. But the problems of testing go deeper, and no one seems to really care about finding the solutions.
One of the biggest issues with the high school graduation test model is that most of these state mandated tests are for all high school students. Every student must take them and every student must pass them to get a high school diploma. In many states, if a student fails to pass the test in their allotted number of attempts, they get only a certificate of attendence instead of a diploma. A certificate of attendence is about as useful as a wet sack of rotten cabbage. So basically, unless a kid can pass all parts of the test in their number of allowed attempts, they get nothing except a piece of paper that says they went to high school (and, oh by the way, was too stupid to pass a simple test). Without engaging in a debate over the sociology of all this, it does seem reasonable to expect an average or above student to be able to pass a test on material aimed at the tenth grade level to graduate from high school - except that many kids who are below average in terms of intelligence and learning ability are expected to pass the same exact test. Even with the few accomodations that many states allow, most students with learning problems can't pass all sections of the tests. Essentially we are saying to those kids, at least some of whom are smart, creative kids with some learning problems, "Sorry Bud, but you suck. Go pump gas some where." (My beloved Ohio does offer some reasonable accomodations for kids who can't pass, but the problem is that most of the kids who can't pass the tests often won't meet the requirements for graduating without the tests either).
Another issue that relates directly to test scores is school funding. In many states, the schools with the poorest test grades do not get additional funding for certain programs and personnel. That's right - if your school is full of kids who need extra help, and the teachers there can't get themto pass the graduation test, then your school loses money. Guess where the money goes. Yep, to the schools with the best test scores. Sound right to you? The idea, of course, is to provide incentives to the schools who are doing what they should be doing: educating kids. The problem with that reasoning is that the schools who have a higher proportion of kids who can't pass the test get less money for the programs and staffing needed to help the kids who are having trouble. This is especially unfair in states such as Ohio, where schools are funded with property taxes and where the districts with highest passing rates are already wealthy.
A third problem is the reality of test preparation. Many schools across the country have implemented classes specifically aimed at helping students pass their proficiency tests. That means that instead of teaching real content and, more importantly, concepts and skills, schools are forced to cram the kids full of facts that they can spit out in order get through the trial of a giant test. Even in all the other schools which haven't begun offering such courses, the curriculum has been altered to fit the design of the tests and focus on that material, instead of other material equally as important, if not more so. If you live in a state with graduation testing, your kid is basically being taught what the state, not the local school board, has decided is important and, moreover, that material may not even be truly learned by your child as it is being packed into short term memory to get them through the test.
The idea of mass high school proficiency testing may seem like a good fix for America's failing schools, but the reality is that it is not helping the kids who need help, nor is it helping all the other children to reach higher levels of learning. It is a weak, generic band-aid to a problem that is more cultural than educational. In most cases, it really is doing more harm than good. The appeal of it is obvious. One can look at a print-out of scores and percentages and say "Look here! Results! Hard data!" The problem is that learning is not the sort of thing that can be determined with a print-out or a percentage. It must be assessed over the long term, by professionals, and on a case by case basis. I would say that the above average or gifted student who has only done what he needs to do to pass the proficiency exam and graduate high school has not learned as much as he could or should have. I would also say the the kid who has a reading problem, or a difficulty processing information, who goes from failing every subject to earning "C's" but still can't pass the tests because he's not given enough time, has come far, and real learning has taken place. It's just too bad the only recognition the second student will get is a pat on the back for making it to school for all four years and a job at the local convenience store.