With education among the electorate’s top priorities, the phrase “higher standards” has become ubiquitous in political campaigns across the country. Ever since the publication of the Reagan Administration’s A Nation at Risk in 1983, the standards-based school reform movement has galvanized a broad coalition from right to left. Conservatives and business leaders are drawn to its pledge to improve the accountability of a public school system they see as an entrenched bureaucracy, as well as to its goal of preparing a more globally competitive work force. At the same time, the movement’s underlying premise, that all children can learn at high levels, has won over many liberals and civil rights advocates, who are rightly concerned about teachers and schools lowering their expectations for poor and minority students.
Unfortunately, this movement has all too frequently been reduced to a single policy: high-stakes testing. This policy links the score on one set of standardized tests to grade promotion, high school graduation and, in some cases, teacher and principal salaries and tenure decisions. To date, about twenty-five states have adopted some version of this policy, and the number of legislatures considering similar measures is growing. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush vigorously promote the use of standardized tests. President Clinton recommended in his State of the Union address that test-preparation manuals be made available to all children.
Yet despite the political popularity of the testing “solution,” many educators and civil rights advocates are suggesting that it has actually exacerbated the problems it sought to alleviate. They claim that these policies discriminate against minority students, undermine teachers, reduce opportunities for students to engage in creative and complex learning assignments, and deny high school diplomas because of students’ failure to pass subjects they were never taught. They argue that using tests to raise academic standards makes as much sense as relying upon thermometers to reduce fevers. Most compellingly, they maintain that these tests are directing sanctions against the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of educational inequities.
The implications of these arguments were serious enough to lead The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University to commission a series of studies on the educational and social impact of high-stakes testing policies from some of the nation’s top scholars in this field. Some of their most significant findings include:
§ High-stakes tests attached to grade promotion and high school graduation lead to increased dropout rates, particularly for minority students. George Madaus and Marguerite Clarke of Boston College discovered a strong association between high-stakes testing and increased dropout rates. They cite studies showing that in 1986 half of the ten states with the lowest dropout figures used no high-stakes tests. The other half employed testing programs that could be characterized as low stakes. Nine of the ten states with the highest dropout rates used standardized tests in decisions about high school graduation.
The effects for minority students can be discerned from a study by Aaron Pallas of Michigan State University and Gary Natriello of Columbia University, who examined the racial and ethnic disparities in performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) between 1996 and 1998. By the spring of their senior year, almost twice as many black and Hispanic students as white students had not passed the TAAS exit-level tests required to obtain a Texas high school diploma. The authors concluded that “these tests are, and will remain for some time, an impediment to the graduation prospects of African American and Hispanic youth.” In another study, Columbia’s Jay Heubert points out that students of color are almost always overrepresented among those who are denied diplomas on the basis of test scores.