April marks the start of the state-wide education testing season. While 4th-8th graders complete the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA-II’s), the class of 2010 faces the strictest high school tests yet — the Graduation Required Assessment for Graduation (GRAD), a series of reading, writing and math tests.
The GRAD 11th grade math test, however, has created a problem. Roughly half of Minnesota’s students are predicted to fail the exam, potentially denying them a diploma if they cannot successfully pass the test by the end of their senior year. Such a widespread consequence has been deemed unacceptable, at least politically, sending politicians and policymakers back to the testing drawing board.
The good news, from the students’ perspective, is that the GRAD math test will likely never be a graduation requirement in its current form. The GRAD also has sparked more debate over how testing could affect student learning for better and for worse, but without really illuminating a fundamental issue related to the state’s low test scores.
Different types of tests are designed to accomplish very different ends. In the nomenclature of the testing industry, a test, regardless of its content, has either a summative or formative purpose. A formative test is any assessment — quiz, test, assignment, etc. — that can inform a teacher’s future instruction. It’s an evaluation designed for improving student achievement.
The GRAD, however, is a summative test — designed not to inform teachers, but to quantify what a large groups of students has learned over the course of the entire school year. An individual’s score becomes one of thousands of data points used to rank and compare schools, districts or even states as a whole for accountability purposes.
Here is the crux of the issue: we assume that a summative test like the GRAD — when paired with severe consequences, like denying a diploma to a student — can fix a formative problem.
Recent research is proving the futility of this approach. A review of 30 years worth of state testing data [Download PDF], conducted by the University of Minnesota, found no instance of high-stakes tests raising student achievement. Worse, not only do students face harsh consequences if they fail, passing the test leads to no added benefits: no scholarships, no wage increases, nothing beyond what a regular pre-test diploma would have afforded.
Unfortunately, there is an inverse relationship between the utility of high-stakes summative testing and its political appeal. The tests seek to replace the complex contradictions and paradoxes of educating students with a black-and-white definition of success and failure, while shifting the onus of success solely onto the students themselves.
The easy refrain becomes: if lazy, underperforming teenagers can’t perform in school, how can we expect them to perform later in life? The tough medicine of the GRAD — and withholding diplomas from underperforming students, even in the face of high failure rates — is justified as a necessary mass vaccination that must be done for the common good.
This line of thinking is logically sound but metaphysically dishonest, because the data gathered by summative tests measures the quality of institutions, not individuals. Dismal performance on the GRAD is not the actual problem — it is a symptom of a systemic disease. And while summative tests are powerful diagnostic tools, they can only measure — not fix — the shortcomings of Minnesota’s educational system.
Solutions need to be instead based around the classroom instruction a child receives from the first day of school until graduation, with particular emphasis on the elementary grades. Researchers from the Public Policy Institute of California [Download PDF] found they could predict — with a high degree of accuracy — which 4th grade students would eventually pass or fail the California high school exit-exam using a range of emotional, social and academic indicators. If a student’s ultimate success is more a product of early-childhood trajectory than adolescent motivation, effective education policies need to become preventative rather than punitive.
Making that turn, however, will not be possible until we acknowledge the causal relationship between individuals and the institutions they inhabit. Every student in Minnesota should be subject to high standards, consequences, and, yes, frequent testing. But not without access to quality teachers, equitable school funding, and saner testing policies that are designed improve student achievement, rather than just measure it.
Simply put: the rhetoric in favor of the GRAD is obscuring the inconvenient fact that we have yet to consistently provide the institutional elements necessary for state-wide student success. To do better, we need policy based on evidence rather than assertion, designed for sustained results over the long term.
Adolescents make decisions based on emotion and impulse; it would be both ironic and unfortunate if our testing policies continue to follow their example.
– Kevin McNellis is an intern at Growth & Justice