The Ohio Graduation Test is More Than a Test
by Thomas J. Lasley, II and William L. Bainbridge
The federal "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) legislation is impacting the landscape of educational policy and practice. Regrettably, whether that impact is perceived as positive or negative depends, to a certain extent, upon one's ideological worldview.
One of the most critical and political features of NCLB relates to testing. Specifically: the United States is undertaking a massive assessment endeavor that will begin to dramatically impact young people's lives over the next few years. Indeed, some critics of NCLB quip that it is really the NCLU legislation - - No Child Left Untested. Others claim it is like a farmer trying to fatten cattle by weighing rather than by feeding the animals.
Stories abound about what all the high-stakes testing means for Ohio students. Some writers predict massive student failures; others suggest the outcomes are still understandably murky; still others, such as a story in the Tennessean suggest, that "there is [likely] no connection between high stakes tests and lower graduation rates [and dire consequences]."
What to believe? Who to believe?
The push toward standards, assessment and accountability started 20 years ago with the now famous ?A Nation at Risk? report. The authors of that document claimed the well-being of America was being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity - - practices such as "whole language" and "social promotion" were compromising the capacity of schools to effectively deliver instruction and enhance student achievement.
A room full of published reports erupted over the next two decades. Those reports suggested every conceivable type of solution, but the one most evident and the one most Ohio parents will experience is the high stakes testing requirement, specifically the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT).
Starting next year students across the Buckeye state will be taking the OGT and their ability to pass that test will dictate whether they can graduate from high school. Students in the Class of 2007 are the first who must pass the OGT to graduate. Debates are now occurring about the content of the OGT and the process for determining who passes and who fails. In early administrations of the tests, intended to establish cut-off scores, far too many students failed and especially far too many students of color performed poorly.
Psychometricians are now, with others, ?playing? with the tests, but the reality of the OGT is not something one can wish away.
The questions are:
* Will Ohio's tenth graders be ready?
* Are Ohio's schools adequately preparing students for success? And,
* Is there anything that can be done to mitigate the likelihood of an educational policy disaster?
Our answers: No, No, and Maybe.
First No: Ohio's ninth graders are not now ready for the tests. Ohio, like other states, is slowly aligning its systems of standards, assessment and accountability. But there is still room for growth and that ?growth? is where many students will fall between the cracks (i.e., fail).
The conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation rated Ohio's accountability system and assessed the newly implemented standards as being solid, but test alignment and content was rated fair. Even granting that foundations such as Fordham may be ?over the top? in terms of expectations, it is still reasonable to assume some credence in what such critics assert.
Hence, is it reasonable to expect Ohio's students to be ready if the state system of standards and assessments is still ?in the growth process??
Second No: Ohio's schools are still not adequately preparing students for the OGT. The number of culprits responsible for this circumstance are too numerous to note, but pick your "favorite" educational agency or institution, point the finger, and you'll likely be right. There is, as the saying goes, "blame enough to go round."
As examples, teacher education institutions are still uneven in terms of the quality of preparation experiences. And, schools, especially urban schools, are just now beginning to identify practices that can make a difference (in content areas such as reading and math), but they often lack the requisite resources for effective professional development to ensure that all teachers possess the needed skills.
So, the state is now getting its act together (thanks to efforts such as the Governor's Commission on Student Success) and educational institutions are still not operating as they should (thanks to far too many weak and ineffective links in the educational chain), but the OGT is still going to be administered.
The outcome will not likely be ?pretty.? In trial tests of the OGT in reading and math more than 75 percent of ALL students who took the test failed.
That brings us to What to do?
Clearly, Ohioans want the high school diploma to mean something. It should and must be more than a seat-time credential.
The State Board of Education's Task Force on Quality High Schools in their draft report proffered two fixes and we add a third:
* Use end-of-course assessments, based upon a rigorous curriculum, rather than a single high school exit exam. Exit exams in core subjects are becoming increasingly popular. Though problems have emerged in some cities (Houston, Texas) where required exit exams in core courses are in place, the use of exit exams holds promise and the state should act to find ways to utilize the exit exam approach
* Create an appeals system for students who fulfill the requirements of a rigorous curriculum, but who cannot pass the OGT. Other states have done this with some success; Ohio should embrace the approach. There will always be some students who know the content, but cannot pass the test. While we cannot explain why that is the case, it is clear that such is a reality. Ohio's system needs to be open enough to ensure that a student who cannot test is not tested beyond his or her limits.
* Create more secondary school structures that meet the unique learning needs of the diverse student populations now in secondary schools. Some urban school districts are already beginning to make this change. Secondary students can go through high school in many different ways that are not at all typical of the traditional comprehensive high school. If the goal is to help all students learn to their potential and to a set of agreed upon standards, then Ohio needs to become a leader in what the future ?face? of high school looks like.
Why all the fuss about options and alternatives? Why not just set the standard and hold students accountable? The reason is that no one really knows what will happen. Jay P. Greene, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, asserts ?the sky doesn't fall when states adopt exit tests.? Indeed, he argues ?you might think that if you adopt some barrier to graduation, the [dropout] rates will go down - - but they don?t!? Sounds good!
The Washington, D.C. based Center on Education Policy, however, comes to a different conclusion. In a report issued in 2002, CEP reported: "The relationship between exit exams and dropout rates has been studied more extensively. Many, but not all, studies suggest that exit exams are associated with increased dropout rates?"
Who is right? No one really knows. What is known is that Ohio can create a system that has the complexity and sophistication Ohio's young people deserve ? one based on more than one test score and one that requires assessments in more than one educational context.
Without solutions, good solutions, it is likely large numbers of students will just not make it, they will dropout. We already have that circumstance. Ohio's goal must be to create something better and that means more than a test must be put in place.
Thomas J. Lasley II is Dean of the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton. William L. Bainbridge is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and President of SchoolMatch, a Columbus based educational consulting, data and research firm.
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