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The Journal Gazette

  • Houshoulder

Saturday, March 05, 2016 10:35 pm

Validity of exit exams is debated

Jamie Duffy | The Journal Gazette

High school freshman Brenden Shuler breezed through the state-standardized algebra test last year, but doesn’t really see the point of the exam. 

"If you have a good enough grade in that class, that should stand for something instead of taking the test," argues Shuler, who attends Leo High School.

This marks the last year for the algebra end-of-course assessment or ECA, required for high school graduation in Indiana. Same for the Eng­lish ECA.

But those breathing a sigh of relief will have another exit math test, and probably tougher to tackle. Beginning next year, the state will start ISTEP+10 to test 10th-graders on math, English and science.

Debra Faye Williams-Robbins, assistant superintendent secondary at Fort Wayne Community Schools, doesn’t think the math will get any easier.

With some states dropping high school exit exams in the last decade and educational experts criticizing the exams’ validity, Indiana continues to expand the exam.

The new ISTEP+10 math test will be aligned to content standards, or a set of math concepts the state requires high schools to teach, said Samantha Hart, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education. It will not be tied to a specific course but will include math concepts such as linear equations, geometry, statistics and probability, skills that allow course flexibility, Hart wrote in an email.

"Oh boy," Shuler said, when he heard the list of possible math test components. "Statistics. I’m not big on that."

The content standards are aligned to more rigorous federal academic standards imposed two years ago and adopted by the Indiana State Board of Education. And if the results of the new ISTEP+ for grades 3-8 that was taken last spring are any indication, test scores will be comparably lower than they were for the ECA algebra test. 

Lower scores mean fewer high school graduates and higher student dropout rates, educational experts say. Unintended consequences are poor employment opportunities and higher incarceration rates.

Experts also say that high school exit exams or graduation tests unfairly target students with disabilities, English-language learners, black, Latino, Native American and low-income students. 

That leaves a population of mostly white, higher income students who fare better on standardized tests, according to data from FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

"Any state standardized testing we’ve ever heard of reflects family and community wealth, particularly family wealth and a mother’s education. Those two are closely correlated," said Monty Neill, Fair Test’s executive director. "More educated mothers come from families that have more money."

Allen County test scores appear to bear that out. Low-income, as measured by a school’s free and reduced-price lunch rate, is closely aligned with a high school’s algebra passing rate.

At South Side High School, where nearly 80  percent of students get free or reduced-price lunch, only 23.7 percent of algebra students passed the 2015 algebra test. At Snider High School, where less than half the students get free or reduced-price lunch, the algebra passing rate was 48.7 percent. Both are in the FWCS district.

At Southwest Allen County Schools’ Homestead High School, where the free and reduced-price lunch rate is just under 12 percent, the algebra passing rate was 93.6 percent.

To be fair, the ECA algebra test passing rate at FWCS middle schools – where only eighth-grade advanced math students take the test – is much higher, in some cases reaching 100 percent.

A 2013 report by educators Leah Hamilton and Anne Mackinnon predicts that the national high school graduation rate will drop from 85 percent to 70 percent in six years and the dropout rate will increase from 15 percent to 30 percent, if graduation exit exams are based on higher academic standards. The report was commissioned by Carnegie Corporation of New York, a nonprofit philanthropic organization that commissions reports on public education.

FairTest’s Neill has called for an end to these exams. Ten states have dropped the exit exams in the last few years. Only 16, including Indiana, require them.

Local mother Caralee Wirges, who has a child attending Carroll High School, agrees with FairTest that the exit exams should end.

"The tests have no validity or relevance. They’re based on how that one student performs at that one moment in time," Wirges said.

Brenden Shuler’s mother, Amy, said she believes some type of testing is necessary to make sure students know basic material. And she doesn’t think state standards should be based on ISTEP exams.

"Communities, kids, they’re all different. They’re all unique," Amy Shuler said. Testing "is taking away the natural ability of the teacher to pattern their teaching to that community."

Brooke Houshoulder, a 2015 Northrop graduate and biology major at University of Saint Francis, shook her head when she heard the new test would be based on content standards.

As an eighth grade advanced math student at Jefferson Middle School, Houshoulder said she took the algebra test that year. She believes requiring teachers to teach all the math options required by content standards puts a burden on the teacher and ultimately, the student.

"The problem with the content standards … the teacher tries to get through as much of the standards because there’s so much they have to cover and so little time to cover it," she said. For instance, statistics is not something she believes was covered thoroughly when she was in high school, but the new exam was not the test she had to take, either.

SACS Superintendent Philip Downs said the major problem isn’t testing. "It is the misuse of tests," he said. One of his proposals is to craft a system that focuses on continuous improvement of students that would not be used as a punishment.

"The testing companies, the for-profit companies that have taken over education policy, and those who really thought that the tests would change educational outcomes, they were wrong from the beginning," said Mark Gia­Quinta, FWCS board president. "Our history is rich with success stories with people who couldn’t pass tests."

jduffy@jg.net