The more things change, the more they stay the same. There’s some truth there, but I recommend that we not apply that adage to most aspects of formal education. Generally speaking, schools have changed a great deal. Following my own advice, I try to ignore personal experiences as a student when I think about the learning experiences of young people today (there is no way to write that sentence without feeling old). Of course, I am comparatively old, more than a generation removed from today’s high school students. During the intervening decades, the structures, practices and environments in schools themselves have changed significantly.
However, even with the plus ça change caveat, when I think about the experiences of today’s high school students, I’m glad that I remember how it feels to get wound up about high-stakes standardized tests – not exams and other assessments associated with coursework. I’m talking about fill-in-the-bubble tests that compare you with nameless multitudes similarly confronted with a number two pencil and a test booklet. I distinctly remember my internal monologue just before I took the SATs. Even though I was anxious, I knew that the test in and of itself would not keep me from my life’s goals and thus was able to get through the SATs mostly unencumbered by panic.
During the past decade, federal and state policies have dramatically expanded the significance of high-stakes standardized tests, not just for students preparing for four year colleges but for all students as they head toward high school graduation. Here in Rhode Island, high school graduation will soon depend, in part, on Partially Proficient (or better) on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) mathematics and reading tests. Current Rhode Island Department of Education plans stipulate that this will concern the class of 2014 and beyond, meaning that this year’s 11th graders will be the first class affected by the implementation of the graduation requirements that include NECAP proficiency.
According to the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the new graduation requirements, this will have a deleterious effect on the number of graduates statewide, putting over 40 percent at risk of not receiving a high school diploma. In Providence, over two-thirds of students may not graduate. Students of color, English Language Learners and special education students face even worse odds. Many of these students struggle with the NECAPs while demonstrating proficiency in their coursework. These are successful students who will be barred from high school graduation. What good does this serve?
The latest data indicates that 66 percent of Providence’s public high school students graduate within four years. What will happen when we add an arbitrary restriction such as the NECAPs other than complicating an already difficult situation? The effect on our economy as a whole, as well of the welfare of thousands of individual students, will be disastrous.
Students should graduate from high school when they have demonstrated that they have met high standards. The argument for incorporating the NECAP into the Rhode Island high school graduation requirements – which include successful completion of class requirements, comprehensive course assessments and a Senior Exhibition project – is that NECAP proficiency indicates minimum levels of literacy and numeracy. Indeed, high school graduation should be meaningful. But it should get that meaning from what matters: classes, courses, assessments and rigorous projects. There’s no evidence that the addition of the NECAP requirement adds meaning to a high school education.
The current dominance of high-stakes standardized tests is having a chilling effect on students’ ability to pursue knowledge in any real depth. Approaches such as interdisciplinary project-based learning, which we know effectively prepares students for success as lifelong learners, are limited or nonexistent. Excessive focus on the tests has caused the curriculum to narrow, inquiry to be stilted and opportunities for struggling students to gain proficiency in the skills they will need throughout their lives to be squandered. While systemic, lasting school improvement demands much more than reducing the emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests, we’re unlikely to get to where we need to go unless we commit to stop limiting the future of our young people, who are so much more than a test score.