Julia Steiny: Students Can Take More Responsibility for Success on State Tests

by Julia Steiny Until the year 2000 I adamantly opposed “high-stakes” state testing, where failure would cost a kid a diploma.  Why penalize kids for what the schools failed to do? But that year, in a stunning upset of my assumptions, Massachusetts’ 10th-graders improved an enormous 20 percentage points on the statewide MCAS.  From 48 [...]

by Julia Steiny

Until the year 2000 I adamantly opposed “high-stakes” state testing, where failure would cost a kid a diploma.  Why penalize kids for what the schools failed to do?

But that year, in a stunning upset of my assumptions, Massachusetts’ 10th-graders improved an enormous 20 percentage points on the statewide MCAS.  From 48 percent proficient to 68 in a single year.  Educators do happy dances when they gain 4 or 5 points on large-scale assessments.  But 20?  Truly miraculous.

Julia Steiny

What happened was that the kids suddenly had skin in the game.  For the first time the tests counted towards their diplomas.  Starting with the graduating class of 2003, MA required students to “pass” the MCAS — albeit at a very low bar — to be eligible for graduation.  That lit a fire under a lot of adolescent butts.  My overly-trusting heart assumed the kids had been doing their best.  Well, not so much.

For three years, the kids and schools had been told this requirement would kick in.  They heard it.  Many of the 32 percent who didn’t pass the first round were only just shy of the goal.  At each of the five opportunities to retake the test, the passing percentages increased until 95 percent had met the requirement in time for their graduation.  The remainder were welcome to stay in school until they too were successful.

Rhode Island is now going through the same crisis.  Shortly after she arrived, Commissioner Deborah Gist mandated a similar requirement for RI’s class of 2014.  So the juniors who took the NECAP test last fall are the first class whose diplomas depend on “passing” the test — again, at a low level.  They too will have multiple chances to re-take.

They can also apply for waivers for extenuating circumstances, or submit other tests, such as the PSAT or ACCESS, designed for English-language learners.  And to make it totally possible to succeed, they don’t have to make it all the way out of “substantially below proficient,” but just show improvement in small, specified degrees.

Honestly, to meet such a nominal standard, kids really only have to pay serious attention in class and cooperate with whatever support the school provides.  Schools do NOT want to withhold diplomas.

I don’t meant to minimize the concerns of those protesting against this policy.  The students most affected are specifically those whose life prospects already look dim.  The numbers of students now at risk of not graduating is scary.

Currently 4113 students, or 38 percent of the class of 2014 has not yet passed one or both of the tests.  Math is a nightmare, with 4,075 non-passers.  Failing both math and English were 745 students.  Only 19 failed the English test, but passed math.

But Massachusetts was in exactly the same pickle, at the same juncture, with 32 percent who’d failed the first round.  So have faith.  If the RI re-take experience is anything like the Bay State’s, most students will get their fannies in gear and pass.

Or drop out.  Which remains a danger of high-stakes testing, to be fair.  But kids drop out for a million reasons.  The NECAP is not the only diploma requirement.  They could fail their courses or blow off their senior project.  In any case, if students are at all connected to school or motivated by the value of a degree in their future, they’ll get themselves over the hump.

The point is that the days of the utterly meaningless diploma need to be over.  Business and higher education have been screaming for years about incompetent young people coming to them entitled to a paycheck or a college “A” for whatever they produce.

Massachusetts’ diplomas are starting to have credible value.  Since the state passed its famed 1993 education-reform legislation, their schools have clawed their way from middling to the tippy top of the national achievement benchmarks (NAEP) in all subjects.  And it has stayed there over time.  The many facets of their reform efforts are too numerous to mention here.

But among them was the dynamo of handing some responsibility for success to the kids themselves.

Mind you, I still think Americans are just weird about their faith in tests and testing.  I keep hearing about “multiple measures,” but see the same old test scores sliced and diced only to be over-emphasized in all sorts of evaluations.  “Multiple” means tests along with a bunch of other, different indicators.

Still, while not golden, test data are valuable.  The public, businesses and taxpayers deserve to know that the diploma certifies something.

And protecting kids from a minimal standard of performance is just a form of enabling them — as the Massachusetts’ story demonstrates.

Maybe if the RI kids have to share the responsibility for their results, they’ll turn on us, the adults, demanding we take better care of the institutions that should be serving them better.  We deserve it.

Because at the end of the day, the educational results belong to them.

Meaningful diplomas are an excellent goal.  All parties — including parents and the public — should be doing their bit to improve education.  It’s not nuts to hand some of that responsibility over to the kids as well.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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