Sharp Decline in High School Graduation Exams Is Testing the Education System (Jay Mathews)

This article appeared December 31, 2017 in the Washington Post.

“Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.”

In this new year, we are experiencing a drastic change in the way U.S. students are assessed. A national movement led by educators, parents and legislators has greatly cut back high-stakes standardized testing in public schools.

Five years ago, 25 states had standardized high school exit exams whose results affected graduation. Now, only 13 states are doing that. A report by the nonprofit FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing has revealed this shift and chronicled efforts to reduce many other kinds of testing.

It’s a breathtaking turnabout, but without much celebrating. National dissatisfaction with our schools hasn’t changed much. It is at 52 percent, according to the Gallup Poll, about where it was in 2012 when 25 states had exit tests. That may have something to do with another development even more important to our schools’ futures.

In December, the Collaborative for Student Success, in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners, reported on state efforts to install creative programs to boost achievement, as encouraged by the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Those efforts are failing miserably, according to 45 experts (including many teachers) who peered deeply into the state plans required by the new law. “States largely squandered the opportunity . . . to create stronger, more innovative education plans,” the report said. “Most states did not indicate specific steps to improve underperforming schools, nor did they describe concrete, rigorous interventions that underperforming schools should implement.”

You may say: So what? Who needs the states or the feds to improve our schools? Educators, parents and students working together can get it done.

In some cases, that is true. In every chapter of our long national education story, innovative teachers, often with parental help, have instituted deeper, livelier, more demanding lessons. As the country has become more affluent and its families more ambitious, the better our schools have become.

But that has been a slow process, with frustrating ups and downs. The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much, but the Collaborative for Student Success study indicates that reducing exit tests is not likely to bring much improvement, either. Other high-stakes exams that affect grades, such as finals written by teachers, will continue to have a big impact on students’ lives.

The 13 states that have high school exit exams are Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Public high schools in other states must still give state tests, even if they don’t affect diplomas.

Parts of Maryland and Virginia, along with the District, make up the very education-conscious Washington area. That region continues to have the highest concentration of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge testing in the country. Those are nongovernment programs mostly out of the reach of the legislatures and boards that have reduced exit tests.


The effort to raise school standards since I left high school in the 1960s has been a carnival ride. The growing use of the SAT to measure high schools in the 1970s brought a backlash, as did the landmark 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report, the 1990s standards movement, the federal No Child Left Behind law in the 2000s and the Common Core State Standards in the past decade or so.

We love making schools more accountable. Then, we hate the idea. This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement. The Collaborative for Student Success study notes that many states “proposed graduation rate goals that far exceeded proficiency rates by 20 percentage points or more, creating the potential for states to graduate students that are not adequately prepared for their futures.”

That’s the way it goes, back and forth, learning advancing in some places, languishing in others. Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference. As always, that will be what saves us.



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2 responses to “Sharp Decline in High School Graduation Exams Is Testing the Education System (Jay Mathews)

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    The “impartiality” of the self-appointed evaluators of state plans–Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative For Student Success certainly needs to be questioned. Both groups hammer at public schools as if it is impossible to improve them, hence the need for their favored reforms.

    Bellwether is really the go-to-source for paid promotions of “reforms” that include digital/online learning, charter schools, and market-based education.
    See some of these initiatives here:

    Or, if you want to see a fleshed out version of their agenda for reform see the September 21, 2016 report from Bellwether Education Partners written by Jason Weeby, Kelly Robson, George Mu.
    “The U.S. Education Innovation Index: Prototype and Report” (USEII) from Bellwether.

    “The U.S. Education Innovation Index: Prototype and Report” (USEII) is intended to promote specific business and managerial practices for metro districts where business leaders are eager to get on the innovation bandwagon and pretend that specific innovations will not only save students in failing schools but also boost the local economy. Think of it this way: “innovation” is the new brand name for “reform” in education.

    The narrative for USEII from Bellwether goes like this. Education is a sector of the economy much like any other. Innovation is the key new and better products and services. Innovation is a process of “creative destruction” of obsolete products and ideas. That process is needed to clear the way for new ideas, products, and services along with freedom to test the viability of these in the marketplace.
    The authors assume that innovation in education is irrefutably good, a virtue as long as students are “not harmed.” Although better data and research is supposed to be a safeguard (research permits some assessment of harm) the authors move along as if they and like-minded people are entitled to use students as guinea pigs in the service of entrepreneurship and innovation (p, 13, 15). After this small gesture toward the welfare of students, the authors show how unconcerned they are with student achievement except as an opportunity to use poor test scores as an investment opportunity. I kid you not. Portraying public schools as a failed with a heavy weight to test scores and graduation rates is “good” and “necessary” for the higher good of innovation.

    Why did Bellwether co-produce the report with the “Collaborative for Student Success?” First, recognize that the Collaborative for Student Success is a “project” of the New Venture Fund, where the Collaborative is described as follows:

    “The Collaborative for Student Success is a multi-donor fund that seeks to invest in national, regional, and state communications and messaging efforts that build support among parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers for implementing Common Core state education standards. The collaborative will invest in grants to education groups that support messaging and polling activities, the development of communications toolkits, and convenings to advance the implementation of the Common Core standards:”
    It should come as no surprise that the Collaboration for Student Success is a “client of the Education Strategy Group, 30 foundations intent on setting policy priorities as if, in addition to deep pockets, they also had superior wisdom in matters bearing on education. Among the major donors credited at the Collaborative for Student Success website (over several years) are many who are eager to see the Common Core and the testing regime from NCLB continue, even with the marginal “flexibilities” offered by ESSA.

    The Collaborative for Student Success is supported by both regional and national foundations, including: Bloomberg Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, ExxonMobil, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Helios Education Foundation, Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

    The Collaborative for Student Success also lists “partners,” with no indication of what that relationship entails. Readers will recognize that many are supporters of the Common Core and associated tests, or charter schools and market-based education: America’s Promise Alliance, Arizona Aims Higher, Californians Dedicated to Education, Climb Higher Colorado, Educators for Excellence, Expect More Arizona, Expect More Tennessee, Future Forward, Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, Hope Street Group, Jersey CAN, Massachusetts Business Alliance, Military Child Committee, Mission Readiness Military Leaders for Kids, National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), Ohio Standard: One Goal Student Success, PA Business Education Partnership, Pennsylvania Business Council, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, PTA, Ready WA(shington), SCORE- State Collaborative on Reforming Education, St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce, Stand for Children Arizona, Stand for Children Illinois, Stand for Children Indiana, Stand for Children Louisiana, Student Achievement Partners-Achieve the, Thomas A. Fordham Institute, US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

    Finally, Many of these organizations and foundations including the Collaborative for Student Success are also clients of Bellwether Education Partners.

    Whatever the merits of independent reviews of ESSA plans and the matter of criteria/requirements for high school graduation, no one should should take the report from Bellwether and the Collaborative for Student Success at face value.

    Here is an early account of the evolution of the Collaborative for Student Success.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Laura, for the ancestry and lineage of the evaluations of the ESSA plans, the role of Bellwether, and the Collaborative for Student Success. Especially the donor-driven sources of funding. Recent years have seen the flourishing of these donor-sponsored “intermediaries” that, like other groups, have their world views, beliefs and commitments to different reforms. Thanks for the links.

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