May 10, 2001
How Will it Impact the Students of Clairemont High School?
In an age when Hello Dolly is more likely to conjure images of a cloned sheep than a show tune, there seem to be few surprises on the horizon. In fact, with the advent of human cloning lurking precariously on the cliff of existence, I suppose it makes sense that children are treated as cattle, prodded by standards and branded by high-stakes tests. While making livestock of our learners may be appealing to some, I on the other hand, have a passion for individuality. Therefore, dwelling on the same side of the barn as Susan Ohanion, Alfie Kohn, Rich Gibson and other critics of high stakes testing, I had an urge to gain perspective on what is being done across the nation to clarify, rather than confuse, the tumultuous issue of individualizing standardized testing. My original question, therefore, was how can we accurately account for diversity and not conformity in testing?
Realizing that researching a topic as vast and complex as this would have left me little time to spend with my 2-year-old daughter, or to eat, or to sleep, or to have any life at all, I narrowed my question: With the nationwide attention and dissension regarding high stakes testing, why has California added a graduation exit exam, and what impact will this have on the overall educational experience for the students? Of course, the “why” in this question, with its twisted political tint, would have led me down an equally consuming path, so I made my question even more specific: The California High School Exit Exam: How Will it Impact the Students of Clairemont High School?
I. THE JOURNEY BEGINS
From what I have heard and read, the array of opinions on the topic of testing has been at arms as long as there have been clashing politicians on the planet. Since I decided not to draw that parallel in my research, and since I am well aware that if cloning an opinion were possible, it would probably result in some mutant ogre of consensus running amuck in the hallways of our schools, my expectations for the students of Clairemont High School were vivid.
I assumed that one more layer of testing would not improve their educational experience. I imagined that many students would fall prey to the existing biases of a “one-size-fits-few” test, and that eventually, as in other states, the students, like the animals in George Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm, would eventually protest against the “pig-headed, gluttonous and avaricious rulers” who mandated it.
Ironically, as I investigated the impact of the exam on the students of Clairemont High, I continually encountered the broad issues which I had originally attempted to avoid, leading me to believe that pedagogical tangents are as certain as George Bush being grammatically incorrect, or Regis Philbin asking, “Is that your final answer?”Acquiescing to this inevitability, I surged ahead with a plan in mind….start with the big picture, then zoom in on a snapshot of Clairemont High.
A trip into the past
My search began, therefore, by reviewing the history behind the trend of high-stakes testing, and examining the impact of exit exams on student in other states around the country. I found an excellent source of reference written by Gary Natriello of Columbia University and Aaron M. Pallas of Michigan State University. In their paper, “The Development and Impact of High Stakes Testing,” originally presented at the High Stakes K-12 Testing Conference, sponsored by The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University Teachers College, Columbia University, and Columbia Law School, (New York, NY - Dec. 4, 1998), Natriello and Pallas discuss the growth of formal standardized testing in many factions of society during the twentieth century in the United States.
Suggesting that “formal testing has become the kudzu of modern American society,” they cite examples of using such tests “to classify personnel for the armed forces and regulate immigration early in the century (Kamin, 1974), to the application of testing and assessment in schools and colleges (Lemann, 1995a, 1995b) and workplaces (Wigdor and Garner, 1982) as the century unfolded, to the institutionalization of widespread testing as government policy in more recent years (Broadfoot, 1996; Hansen, 1994).”
Natriello and Pallas also contend that in the last quarter of the twentieth century, testing has become a “major tool of policy makers for the governance and regulation of education.” According to their research, the growth of the minimal competency testing movement began during the seventies when widespread use of formal testing in many states became a means of placing “a performance floor under the educational enterprise.” Unfortunately, the performance floor was not used for dancers, actors, and musicians, but as a platform for policy makers to showcase standardized testing connected with high stakes, such as graduation from high school.
After presenting this background, they review the recent developments in the growth of testing as a requirement for high school graduation for K-12 public school systems throughout the United States. They continue by examining the impact of these tests on students in different racial/ethnic groups. The results reported in the following table show that more than one-sixth of minority students did not successfully complete the TAAS, (exit-level test required to obtain a Texas high school diploma), while less than one in ten white students in the classes of 1996 through 1998 failed to complete the exit-level TAAS successfully. Natriello and Pallas note that despite the increasing cumulative pass rates from 1996 to 1998, which is encouraging, “the overall impression is that these tests are, and will remain for some time, an impediment to the graduation prospects of African American and Hispanic youth.”
Cumulative Pass Rates on the TAAS for the Classes
of 1996-1998, by Race/Ethnicity
In a parallel study by the Applied Research Center, (“No Exit? Testing, Tracking, and Students of Color in U.S. Public Schools), I found more statistics which confirmed the bias of the TAAS. ARC claims that 40% of all Texas seniors are either Mexican or African American, but that they represent 85% of the students who fail the Texas high school exit exam.
Natriello’s and Pallas’s study also points out racial and ethnic disparities in Minnesota where the first statewide administration of the Minnesota Basic Standards tests took place in 1996. They substantiate their disparities through the analyses of data by researchers at the Roy Wilkins Center at the University of Minnesota (Roy Wilkins Center, 1997). The statistics confirm that students in all minority groups performed less well on the test than majority students. White students averaged 80% correct, Asian American students scored 73%, Native American and Hispanic students scored 65% correct, and African-American students scored 58% correct.
Correct Percentage Rates on the Minnesota Basic Standards
Test for the class 1996, by Race/Ethnicity
that there must be some states treating students as individuals, and not
clones, I ran across an excerpt in the American Association of School Administrators,
Leadership News, (Dec. 22, 1999). In her overview, Editor, Natalie
Carter Holmes gives examples of, “numerous states and school districts
struggling with the various issues surrounding high stakes testing.”
Based on her report, it seems that they might have the right idea in Portland,
Oregon, where, “Rather than have students meet common district standards,
team members wrote a goal of having 100 percent of students demonstrate
significant growth each year toward achieving district expectations.”
Individualized targets were planned for each student in which past performance
and potential would be used as a “better measure” of achievement.
Not quite as uplifting was Holmes’s report that state officials in Massachusetts decided to lower the passing grade on the MCAS based on findings that “more than three-quarters of Latinos and blacks would be denied a diploma under a higher standard.” In a more recent article, “Are High-Stakes Tests Punishing Some Students,” by Diane Weaver Dunne (Education World, Apr. 23, 2001), she declares that the “ACLU of Massachusetts issued a public advisory about their concern that the MCAS punishes poor, ethnic-minority students the most.” ACLU statistics confirmed that 65% of low-income students fail the test, while 12% of affluent students do. Also, in Boston, 43% of white students in 10th grade failed the math test and 85% of Hispanic students failed it.
Particularly curious about Massachusetts, since I grew up there and both my father and aunt were teachers there, I decided to find out more about what was being done regarding the MCAS. I discovered an official protest movement by the student body, which is summarized on MCAS.SCAM. (Pamphlet attached). Also, a group of parents and educators, The Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, is calling for a “more comprehensive assessment, school quality reviews, and limited standardized testing.” Although so many groups, including the ACLU, oppose the test, nothing has been done legally. The ACLU says that they have not filed a lawsuit because, “There have been so many bad legal opinions, especially out of Texas, we have not filed a lawsuit at this time.”
State by state research confirmed what Natriello and Pallas summarized at the High Stakes K-12 Testing conference. If the results of high stakes tests are used “to reveal deficiencies in the current arrangements for the education of all children, including less advantaged children,” then such tests might have a positive impact. Cross-examining their point, however, Natriello and Pallas speculated that if “the motivational consequences of high stakes tests are not positive or at least not uniformly positive across racial, ethnic, and social class lines, then we should be concerned about their potential to further exacerbate already substantial inequities in schooling outcomes.” From what I have read, I think the latter is the more prevalent trend.
Cruising into California
the overwhelming data from my virtual jaunt across the country, I decided
it was time to point and click my way back to California.A
quote I encountered lingered in the cloudy corners of my mind: “Exit exams
aggravate existing inequalities and do NOTHING to enhance academic excellence.They
are a phony fix to a complex problem.” (New York Times article by Applied
Research Center, Feb. 24, 1999.)Another
quote by Robert Schaeffer, Fair Test Public Education Director, was haunting
me as well: “Believing that you can improve schooling with more tests is
like believing you can make yourself grow taller by measuring your height.”With
that, I slipped back into the barn again, and remembered a pitchfork poke
on testing, by Washington State Representative, Robert Scott, member of
the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, who said, “Weighing
the pig doesn’t fatten the pig.”
Rigged with Schaeffer’s and Scott’s words of wisdom, and dizzied by visions of lean ham, fat-free bacon, and my mother-in-law’s pork roast, I sailed back to sunny California to check the testing climate.I read an article by principal researchers, Rebecca Gordon,
and Libero Della Piana, “No Exit? Testing Tracking, and Students of Color in US Public Schools,” (ERASE, Applied Research Center, 1999).The report by this California group mirrored previous findings of my search that “In virtually every state that has implemented high school exit exams, a disproportionate number of those who have passed all other requirements but fail to graduate, or who must go into the world with a “certificate of completion” instead of a diploma, are students of color.”
Along with that capsizing comment, the ERASE study hinted that stormy waters are brewing off the Californian coast by quoting Governor Gray Davis:“Now, I want especially to speak to the notion of accountability.While a number of other states, (it’s up to 28 now), require students to pass a statewide minimal skill exam to graduate from high School, California does not.I believe we need to do even better.I am proposing a rigorous high school graduation exam, second to none in America.”
Wow, not only was Gray Davis anxious to join the test lemmings of America, but he was also dead set on becoming the big-cheese, numero-uno, almighty lemming of all time.Maybe no one told him that California has a problem with overcrowded, segregated, and under funded schools, or that students of color are being tracked for failure.Maybe the energy crisis has him frazzled, and he hasn’t read articles such as Sherry Posnick-Goodwin’s, (Next Spring’s High school Exit Exam Should Concern Educators At All Levels, California Educator, Volume 5, Issue 3, Nov. 2000), which gives proof that by seventh grade, two-thirds of all Californian schools will have “separated students by their “tested” ability, steering them into vocational, remedial, and low academic tracks.”Or maybe I should try harder to stick with my plan of leaving politics out of my search.
Anyway, feeling a little sea-sick, I read a paper by Perry Marker, “Standards and High Stakes Testing; the dark side of a generation of political, economic, and social neglect of public education.” (The Rouge Forum, www.pipeline.com/~rgibson/rouge_forum).(The gloomy title was strangely alluring.)Describing California as “the nation’s bellwether,” where the future is on display, Marker emphasizes that “The current wave of high stakes, standardized tests are punitive and neglect the notion that assessment should serve the primary purpose of improving student learning.”He blames California leadership for failing to invest in students and teachers.In his words, “Isn’t the education of our children far too important to reduce it to a high stakes game of testing roulette?”I concur.
A self-indulgent detour
by the “testing roulette” image, I decided to engage in some dueling fair
play and I joined several on-line forums and message boards.I
read opinions both supporting and opposing high stakes testing.One
anonymous high school teacher expressed an opinion that high stakes testing
and accountability in physics and chemistry
Driven into an activist state of mind by this writer, I joined Rich Gibson’s Rouge Forum, which has kept me updated, via e-mail, on high-stakes protesting throughout the country, as well as here in California.Inspired by his long-term “revolution” against high-stakes testing in Michigan, Rich has recently begun a grass-roots protest movement here in San Diego. I also listened to excerpts from “The California Report: The Testing of America: Education or Obsession,” a live radio series broad casted by KQED (Public Broadcasting for Northern California).The six week series featured conversations with students, parents, teachers, school administrators and test program developers regarding the pros and cons of standardized testing.It was interesting to hear Alfie Kohn mention that his popularity is not necessarily based on his expertise, but on the heightened awareness of the consequences of high stakes testing.
Closing in on my destination
Continuing my long and winding effort to zero in on my target, I read two articles by Jessica L. Sandham, in Education Week, “California Legislature Considers Postponing Graduation Exam,” (Feb. 28, 2001), and “California’s “Practice” Test is for Real,” (March 14, 2001), which updated me on some specifics of implementing the exam.According to Sandham, State School Superintendent, Delaine Eastin, confidently told the State Board that “We have a very good test here and we are on the right path.We really don’t feel we’re in a disastrous situation.”
beg to differ, of course. When
the test was administered, the state board still hadn’t made a decision
on how to score it, and as it stands, lawyers and alleged “test experts”
are still trying to determine “which method is better and could be defended
better in lawsuits.”I would say
that it’s definitely a “disastrous situation” when last minute decisions
regarding high-stakes tests are being made, and that the decisions are
based on defensible merit, rather than reliability.The
raw scores of the 300,000 students who took the exam are due on May 18th.Looks
like I’ll have an addendum to my search.
Sandham’s articles also mention that despite the fact that the initial administration of the CAHSEE was originally planned to be a practice test, it was decided at the last minute that it should count.An article spotlighting the debut of the exit exam in California,“Freshman Start Taking High School Grad Test,” (The Sacramento Bee, Apr. 20, 2001, The Associated Press), gave me some insight on the decision.Apparently Governor Davis decided to nix the idea of using the exam as a practice test because of “court decisions in other states,” and because “test experts have said it is better to have all students take the test at once to withstand legal challenges.”The idea is that the state could argue that the test was “fair” because “a complete cross-section of students took the test at the same time.”
Curtis Washington, member of the San Mateo Union High School District Teachers Association believes that, “We could end up with lawsuits if large numbers of students don’t pass the test. If we try to deny students their diplomas, which have value, we must prove that we’ve taught these students everything they needed to pass the test, or they will have a case against the state.We’ll get mired in lawsuits defending this test, or else the whole thing will get scrapped and all the time and money we’ve spend on this thing will get wasted.”Now wouldn’t that be an ironic outcome?Washington also expresses concern over the CAHSEE following the same pattern as the STAR test, and that “those who get diplomas and those who don’t will be determined by ZIP codes.We’ll end up with minorities and the disadvantaged being denied diplomas.It will drive a wedge between the factions of our cultures - between the haves and the have-nots.”Washington’s opinions and frustrations gave me fuel for the last few miles of my search.
Finally back in Clairemont
read the March 2000 Clairemont High School Accountability Report Card and
learned that, “Since 40% of the students are reading more than two years
below grade level…there is a corresponding number of students that are
below the national norms in reading and math on the SAT 9 test.”
Armed with my statistics, and my undaunted disdain for high stakes testing, I headed to Clairemont High to interview some students.As I rounded the corner, video camera in hand, I was surprised to see a Channel 8 Newscaster standing in front of the school.My first thought was, “Oh no, she stole my idea!”Quickly recovering from this attack of self-centeredness, I realized that she was not reporting on the exit exam, but on the 300 students who were being held for detention since they had stayed home from school on the anniversary of the Columbine shootings.With the El Cajon and Santee school shootings still casting a crimson hue on the campus, and with the gory fact that is was also Hitler’s birthday, there had apparently been some understandable concerns regarding student safety.
Realizing that pursuing my interviews would at best be some sick sort of digression, I decided to succumb to the powers that be, and try another time.After watching the piece on the news that night, my decision was validated. Not only were there too many angry students, parents, teachers, and administrators for me to have gathered candid commentary, but there was also something more important at stake.While an exit exam might be laced with symbolic life and death elements…weapon bearing students present an undeniably literal jolt.
About a week later I was running an errand with my daughter and I saw what looked like a 9th grader outside of a pizza parlor.Feeling slightly surreptitious, I asked him if hehad taken the California High School Exit Exam.It turned out that indeed he was a 9th grader from Clairemont High School and he was anxious to be interviewed about the test.
opinion was that the idea of an exit exam, “sucked,” and that a better
representation of his knowledge was through his class grades and portfolios.Feeling
inspired by the outcome, I decided to drive over to the school to see if
there were any straggling 9th graders, or I should say 9th
graders straggling.When I arrived,
it was around 5:00 o’clock and the campus buzzed with the combined energy
of band rehearsal and softball practice.I
interviewed a few boys who were playing handball, and despite their varying
comments, there was a common theme.They
all agreed that the existing graduation requirements were enough.
The students I interviewed basically agreed that the exit exam is not the best way to assess actual achievement.One girl said that her mother kept her out of school on the day of the test because she thought it was “a bunch of crap.”Many of the students agreed that it seemed silly to take the CAHSEE in 9th grade, since they hadn’t even been through high school yet.I guess “minimum” and“competency” are not on their vocabulary list yet.
III. AND THE ANSWER IS…
Ultimately embracing the entanglement of my journey, I learned that the process of authentic assessment is an adaptive challenge which is being met at some levels, yet poisoned by political precipitation at others, and that the bureaucratic band-aid of high-stakes testing has already had toxic effects.What does this mean for the students of Clairemont High School?Withthe gale of Governor Davis’s decision still looming ominously on the edge of the educational forecast, the wave of consequences hasn’t yet become the tsunami that it has in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Michigan, Florida, and other states, so it’s too soon to tell. Based on the stormy backlash around the country, however, I think that now would be a good time to start stacking the sand bags.
I also learned that if there is validity in the message from the Standards for Education and Psychological Testing, which claims that diplomas should not be handed out according to a single test score, and that “other relevant information should be taken into account if it will enhance the overall validity of the decision,” then there is no place for the CAHSEE.“Other relevant information,” such as class grades, portfolios, and final exams already exist, and according to many of the students at Clairemont High School, these measurements are far more accurate determinants ofboth their performance and their knowledge.
On the farm again
the barn one last time, I have to say that my search has emphasized my
belief that the California High School Exit Exam is a prancing political
scapegoat making guinea pigs of students, overburdened oxen of educators,
and clucking chickens of administrators.
IV. ON A FUTURISTIC NOTE
Projecting myself thirty years into the future, I see clones of Hitler and Einstein scattered across the school yards of America, preparing for their high school exit exams.Flashing back on an edition from “The Sacramento Bee,” back in June of 2000, I remember a quote from Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, claiming, “Albert Einstein – who was dyslexic – did not perform well on tests as a child.”A horrible thought crosses my mind. What if Hitler had been an excellent test taker?The wretched scene plays out: The Hitler clones join forces creating a neo-eugenic regime of high school graduates who implement a demented social onslaught, rendering individuality extinct, and the disconsolate Einstein clones wallow in their wasted brilliance, retaking a test over and over again that never measured their potential in the first place.A dismal picture?Indeed.
Again, projecting myself into the future, I see a diametric scene.The sentiments of the times are influenced by the anonymous writer who said, “Jobs in the future will require divergent, creative problem solvers who can work collaboratively with others.High stakes testing inhibits creativity and prohibits collaboration.” (The New York Times On The Web, Standardized Testing Forum, Apr. 16, 2001).Under the reign of this
nominated education guru of America (EGA), the forces governing our youth
bond together, embracing the truth that while all students may be created
equally, they are also created uniquely.The
extraordinary students gracing the school yards ofthe
globe become empowered to express their potential through individualized
modes of instruction and assessment, thereby encouraging not only their
graduation from high school, but their preparation for the mosaic of life
awaiting them.A prettier picture?I
would say so.
Susan Ohanion, One Size Fits Few, The Folly of Educational Standards, (1999)
Schrag, Peter, Paradise Lost, California’s Experience, America’s Future
Natriello, Gary, Columbia University, and Pallas, Aaron M., Michigan State University,
“The Development and Impact of High Stakes Testing,” Nov. 1999, revised version, originally presented at the High Stakes K-12 Testing Conference , The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University Teachers College, Columbia University, and Columbia Law School, New York, NY - Dec. 4, 1998.
Carter Holmes, Natalie, Editor, “American Association of School Administrators,” Leadership News, Dec. 22, 1999.Overview, Editor
Weaver Dunne, Diane, “Are High-Stakes Tests Punishing Some Students,” Education World, Apr. 23, 2001
Posnick-Goodwin’s, Sherry, “Next Spring’s High school Exit Exam Should Concern Educators At All Levels,” California Educator, Volume 5, Issue 3, Nov. 2000
Marker, Perry, “Standards and High Stakes Testing; the dark side of a generation of political, economic, and social neglect of public education.” (The Rouge Forum, www.pipeline.com/~rgibson/rouge_forum)
Jessica L. Sandham, in Education Week, “California Legislature Considers Postponing Graduation Exam,” Feb. 28, 2001, and “California’s “Practice” Test is for Real,” Mar. 14, 2001)
The American Educational Reseach Association, www.area.net
Rich Gibson’s Rouge Forum, www.pipeline.com/~rgibson/rouge_forum
CTA/California Educator, www.cta.org
Word of Mouth
Dr. Bob Infantino
The Students @ Clairemont High School
1High-stakes protest updates - Rouge Forum (www.pipeline.com/~rgibson/rouge_forum)
2“California Report”summary transcripts - KQED - Public Broadcast
5Clairemont High School Demographics
6Clairemont High School SARC
7San Diego City Schools - High school graduation requirements
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