PUTTING HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMAS TO THE TEST
Part 2 of 3: Transition to New Tests Provides Opening for Better Assessment Policies
September 10, 2013
With more than 100,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 out of school and out of work, the last thing NJ needs are fewer high school graduates and more dropouts. To avoid that possibility, NJ will need new assessment policies when current high school tests are replaced by new Common Core exams in the spring of 2015.
The new exams created by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) are supposed to measure new, tougher—but largely unproven—curriculum standards. The question for secondary students and their families is what changes in graduation policies will come with them.
If PARCC’s “college and career ready” score on these tougher exams is adopted as the new high school graduation standard, the negative impact on graduation and dropout rates could be dramatic.
But the transition to the new exams also offers NJ an opportunity to sever the unreliable link between high stakes tests and high school diplomas and to adopt more effective and more equitable assessment policies.
Governor Christie’s own College and Career Readiness Task Force proposed eliminating the link between the new exams and high school diplomas during a multi-year phase in of the PARCC exams. Instead, the Task Force recommended reporting the scores on student transcripts without graduation penalties. This would significantly reduce the stakes attached to the tests and still make results available for whatever relevant data they may provide. Such a policy would be light years better than pushing thousands of students out of school with no diploma.
The “canaries in the coal mine” for this latest testing experiment are the 10-15,000 students who use the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) each year to meet state graduation standards (including as many as two-thirds of the state’s English learners). The NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) says AHSA will be eliminated after 2015. Simple fairness and NJ’s statutory requirement for an alternative assessment using “instruments other than standardized tests” require a transition period to develop multiple opportunities for high school students to obtain a diploma and to keep NJ’s graduation rates high.
PARCC’s hurried timeline also needs revision. Previous transitions to new exams required several years of “due notice” testing to make families, students and educators aware of new expectations. Schools also need time to align instruction with the material being tested and to make sure students have an opportunity to learn it.
The PARCC tests are not yet finalized and are already running into design and implementation issues that have some states pulling out of the consortium. As Commissioner Cerf has acknowledged, the Common Core standards, “have not yet been fully put into place” in school districts across the state. The fact that the new tests will also be used to evaluate teachers—a purpose for which they are neither designed nor reliable—adds another layer of complications.
Yet the NJDOE’s timeline calls for field testing the PARCC exams during the coming school year, followed by “full implementation” in spring 2015. The first full results for these new tests won’t be available until the summer of 2015—after they’ve been given for the first time. Only then will the implications of various “cut scores” or passing levels for high school graduation become visible.
When PARCC results are finally available, they should be examined in a public, transparent process before any policy decisions are made. As the Governor’s Task Force proposed, there should be several years of results before any attempt is made at setting “cut scores.” There is no credible way these tests can be used to make decisions about who graduates in June 2016, as the NJDOE’s original timeline suggested.
Given these multiple moving pieces, NJ students and families would best be served by one of two options: an extension of existing high school assessments for all current secondary students, or, even better, a phase-out of the graduation exit test requirement with the arrival of the PARCC exams in 2015.
Fewer than half of the 50 states have high stakes graduation exams, and several that did recently ended them. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “challenging standards-based exams reduce graduation and increase incarceration rates.” The study found no corresponding positive effects on employment or earnings. In fact there is little evidence that an exit testing policy leads to better prepared graduates, improved college completion rates, or benefits to a state’s economy.
The transition to the PARCC exams is the perfect time to kick the high stakes testing habits that set schools and students up for failure, and to shift attention to the real task of providing the resources and supports schools and students need to actually meet the high expectations we say we have for them.
PUTTING HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMAS TO THE TEST:
Director, Secondary Reform Project