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Sacramento, we have a problem

SACRAMENTO, we have a problem. The first national study of the impact of introducing a battery of "high stakes" tests in schools in more than two dozen states -- including California -- shows that they are having no clear impact.

Oops. The state has been spending billions of dollars on the assumption that these tests would prod students, and their teachers, to do better. They're used to reward students, teachers and principals in schools where test scores improve, and to shame those in schools where they don't. Hence the term "high stakes."

In California, for example, schools are ranked, in part, by student performance on the Stanford 9 multiple-choice test. Teachers and principals in schools where scores improve have been showered with financial rewards -- up to $25,000 each a year. Schools that don't improve are tagged "underperforming" and threatened with state takeover or closure.

It's true that scores have improved on the Stanford 9 in California. But we don't yet know whether that shows students are doing better in school generally -- or whether the improvement is limited to performance on the test.

The findings from researchers at Arizona State University suggest the latter. Their central conclusion: "The data suggest that after the implementation of high stakes tests, not much happens." Across 27 states studied, they found "scores seem to go up or down in a random pattern after high stakes tests are introduced."

What students are learning, the study found, "does not appear to have any meaningful carry-over effect. Students are learning content of state- administered tests and perhaps little else."

The report found "weak evidence" that in California fourth-grade math achievement increased as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But it was "unclear" whether scores on eighth-grade math improved. No scores were available from the NAEP to independently assess California's progress on reading.

For those hoping California's testing regimen simply needs more time to yield results, the experience of other states is equally discouraging. The study found that states using high stakes tests for more than a decade have "continued to perform much like the rest of the nation."

The report should send a warning to the California Board of Education which, beginning in 2004, will require high school seniors to pass the ultimate high stakes test: an exit exam in order to graduate. The Arizona study found that in the 18 states that already impose exit exams, fewer students are graduating.

Also disturbing was the suggestion that academic achievement of graduating students in those states, as measured by the ACT, SAT and Advanced Placement exams, decreased.

Some critics have attacked the study because it was funded by affiliates of the National Education Association, the nation's dominant teachers' union. But a close reading of the study does not reveal any obvious methodological bias.

Where does this leave California? At the very least, state educators must look closely at the experience of other states before mandating the looming high school exit exam. In principle, it's a good idea. But it would be irresponsible to impose yet another test if sound research shows it does more harm than good.

— lead editorial
Sacramento, we have a problem
San Francisco Chronicle
January 2, 2003


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