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The Journal Gazette

  • Oletha Jones

  • Lisa Guisbond

Wednesday, January 30, 2019 1:00 am

No child left behind

As state lessens influence of grad exams,we need to do right by those unfairly judged

Oletha Jones and Lisa Guisbond

Indiana deserves praise for taking steps to move beyond its high school exit exam policy by offering alternative pathways to graduation.

For the sake of education quality and fairness, state legislators and policymakers should continue in this positive direction by eliminating graduation tests. Even better, they should move to grant diplomas retroactively to students denied diplomas based on graduation test scores alone.

Since Indiana passed legislation in 2017 allowing multiple pathways to graduation, students who work hard and complete all their requirements have more ways to demonstrate their readiness to graduate. They've been freed from the weight of wondering and worrying whether a few points on a standardized exam will snuff out their dreams and plans for the future. (For some students, the anxiety alone can throw them off and cause them to fail.)

However, to move forward successfully, we must first understand how the existing high-stakes testing regime has affected the lives of our students. This is particularly important for historically underserved students. They're the ones most likely to suffer the negative consequences of high-stakes exams.

For example, what has become of students pushed off the track to a regular high school diploma by graduation tests? What can be done to get them back on track?

We must also pay attention to the devil in the details of the Graduation Pathways plan to be sure it does not just re-create barriers for students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners.

Families must also be fully informed of the options available to their children.

More and more states have abandoned exit exams because they have a track record of failure. Just 12 states cling to this destructive policy, down from a high of 27.

And seven states have gone the extra yard and granted diplomas retroactively. These include both red and blues states including Alaska, Arizona, California, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina and Texas. Indiana can and should join them.

Experience and research show the tests do not ensure students are better prepared for life after high school. In fact, there are better ways to assess readiness for graduation. New York and other states, for example, use performance-based assessments that promote challenging and engaging project-based learning.

National research confirms that high school graduation tests do not improve learning but cause harm. This is true especially for vulnerable student groups, including students with disabilities, English learners, low-income, African-American, Latinx and Native American students.

These are the groups of students most likely to experience a narrowed curriculum aimed at just getting them over the test score bar. And they are the groups most likely to be denied a diploma because of a few points on a standardized exam.

Test defenders say the exams “give value” to a diploma, but research shows the opposite is true. For example, studies show the tests do not improve employment prospects or college readiness. A 2011 National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences review found that high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement but have raised the dropout rate.

Exit exams give students who have worked hard, played by the rules and stayed in school the status of high school dropouts. This creates an enormous and growing cost to society. Adults without a diploma earn less, are less likely to be employed or have a stable family, and are more likely to be imprisoned.

It's important to remember that a student's transcript, not a test score, is what makes a high school diploma truly meaningful and gives the most accurate picture of a student's readiness for college and career. Two major studies confirmed that high school grades are much stronger predictors of undergraduate performance than standardized test scores.

(That's one reason why more than 1,000 colleges and universities now offer test-optional admissions. These include Indiana's Ball State University, Earlham College and Hanover College.)

Something must be done for students who worked hard and completed their high school requirements before the state offered other pathways to graduate. These young people should not be arbitrarily excluded from the benefits of a more enlightened policy just because of being born a year or two or three too soon.

Oletha Jones is education chair of the South Bend NAACP. Lisa Guisbond is an assessment reform advocate with the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) in Boston.