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.