Education: a thing of the passed

By Michael Grisolia

Today’s society has an addiction. We are monomaniacally obsessed with standardized testing. The latest symptom of this disease, and the possibly the worst symptom yet, is the high school exit exam. 

In California, the class of 2004 will be the first to face the possibility of not graduating if they do not pass this exam. The stakes have never been so high. As students, faculty, and parents struggle to accommodate this requirement, the degeneration of public education will continue.

Determining the fate of a human being on the basis of a three-hour period is absurd. Even though students have eight chances to pass the examination, some people simply crumple under such intense pressure every time. These tests claim to assess “real-world skills” but when in the adult world does a silently gridded collection of bubbles under a timer affect anything?

Governor Gray Davis frequently and visibly advocates the cause of “saving” public education. Based on George W. Bush’s success with a similar program of exit examination in Texas, and his subsequent (if contested) presidential victory, Davis seems to be keeping his eyes on the prize and trying for the White House the “Dubya” way. This would not be a problem if the exit exam were truly an effective tool, but it is not. These tests are at an absurdly low level. While Texas crowed over rising exit exam scores, their performance on national exams, such as the SAT, did not improve at all. Those students lucky enough to do well at this sort of test will find it laughably easy. All of the content for this high school exit exam is middle-school level.

There are other questions about the fairness of this exam. Numerous large studies at major universities have suggested that such tests are inherently unfair. They are biased toward the wealthy and the white. The state of California is taking no action to make this exam more equitable. The written portion of the test is no better. Two short essays are the determining factor in assessing whether a student writes well enough to graduate. This is like teachers grading students on their rough drafts. Few people can write to their full potential when not allowed revision. This test is inherently unable to accurately measure student ability.

Even if it were fair, such an examination will still be disastrous. Textbooks will be “realigned” to match with the testing material. Teachers, regardless of official pronouncements about “teaching to the standards and guidelines,” will have to teach to the test to raise student scores. Historically, whenever a new standardized test is introduced, scores are low the first year and rise each year after that. Why? Each year, teachers become more skilled at teaching to the test. Education as we know it will continue to die off.

Perhaps the single most pathetic casualty of this behemoth’s rampage will be special education. A special-education student who cannot take tests, who has been diagnosed and exempted from all testing, cannot get a high-school diploma. It doesn’t matter if the person can write good non-timed essays and can sole problems under normal circumstances. No test? No diploma. Good at everything but tests? Too bad.

The narrow-minded, biased, constricting, restricting, heartless California High School Exit Exam is a travesty against educational justice. Accountability is necessary. Investment in education is necessary. We must, however, find better means of strengthening schools. Investment in lower class sizes, innovative schedules to meet student needs, and internships to bring job skills to seniors are much better uses of our limited educational budget than throwing money at the problem in the form of yet another high-stakes, multiple-choice math and language test. To provide real accountability, implement broad-based assessments, such as senior portfolios. These portfolios require students to assemble work from throughout their high-school years, reflect on what they have learned, and demonstrate that they actually did something in the preceding four years. A portfolio is a much better measure of actual learning and real-world abilities. Many adults collect documents and make presentations. All of them have to communicate effectively in their work. How many of them are hired to bubble in circles?

In his presidential ambition, Gov. Davis is subjecting California to an unfair, inadequate test. Better alternatives exist, but they have less “political sex appeal” to the nation’s voters. This reflects America’s addiction to standardized tests that provide simple, quick answers to the eternal question: “Will my kid succeed?” Unfortunately, these pat answers are almost meaningless. And as a result of the process, students will really learn less than ever. Test scores have replaced learning as the goals of California’s public schools. Education is now a thing of the passed.


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