High Stake Testing & Graduation

A new working paper titled The Causes and Consequences of Test Score Manipulation: Evidence from the New York Regents Examinations examines the effects of high stakes testing required for graduation. The study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that falsifying final scores or “grade scrubbing” was commonplace. The study examined scoring from 2003 through 2013. It seems that New York City teachers were giving students a boost towards graduation by manipulating their scores by a few points. Researchers’ estimates suggest that “teachers inflate(d) approximately 40 percent of test scores near the proficiency cutoffs.” It is estimated that, “tens of thousands of students…graduated because of the grade changing.”

New York State requires students to pass to Regents exams in English, math, science, U.S. History and Government, Global history and geography in order to get their diploma.  In 2013, the board changed the testing policies to include more centralized exams and the elimination of re-grading; it appears that what they refer to as “manipulation” of test scores has been eliminated. If this study is any indication, teachers realize the impact of students not finishing high school. Although teachers change scores in order to benefit students, that may not always be the case. Research suggests that, “students truly in jeopardy of not graduating benefitted — (and) were more likely to get a diploma — by having their scores elevated that little bit. But students who might have otherwise finished high school with an advanced degree if made to go back and repeat a course, were hurt when teachers fudged their exams.”

But one question that could potentially overshadow the scandal of teachers “manipulating” scores is whether we even need these tests at all. In addition to being stressful and forcing teachers to abandon lesson plans in order to prepare for the test. If anything, employers and colleges are looking for far more than students who can only solve complex problems and support their arguments with evidence; they’re looking for students that have great study skills, have a handle on time management, and are persistent and willing to work hard. The question that we should be asking is whether these tests are even aligned with college-level work or employee standards. Most standardized tests only demonstrate basic academic skills, so why are we asking high schoolers to go through all of this?

Simply put, graduation exams don’t really add much value to education. They also aren’t indicative of future performance. Unlike other standardized tests, opting out isn’t an option. Students must pass these tests in order graduate and get a high school diploma. According to greatschools.org, 26 states require exams in order to graduate—North Carolina included. According to federal statistics, 40% of college students take at least one remedial class. The extra cost and time commitment can greatly reduce the probability that they will graduate at all (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004). And if the chance of not graduating weren’t a big enough risk, the cost to students and tax payers is a whopping 7 billion dollars. If such a large number of students are entering college without the educational benchmarks that they need, then clearly something is amiss. Finding a way to make sure that students are educationally prepared for work or college can be done without the need for stressful, high stakes testing. Utilizing better assessment methods would benefit both students and teachers. If teachers feel the need to fudge their students final scores and college freshmen are having to take remedial classes, it’s time to rethink the high stakes tests required for graduation.

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