commentary

(Philadelphia Inquirer)

March 28, 2007

Think It Through on Tests

by Laura S. Hamilton

Gov. Rendell's Commission on College and Career Success has proposed that Pennsylvania establish a common set of exams that all students would be required to pass in order to graduate from any public high school.

The proposal is a well-intentioned effort to ensure that students are prepared for life after high school and to reduce disparities in preparation across the state.

Unfortunately, it is likely to produce unintended and undesirable consequences.

To graduate from any public high school in Pennsylvania today, students must either achieve proficient level on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) or pass a locally developed assessment.

The commission recommendation intends to eliminate the local variation by ensuring that all students meet a common competency standard.

However, the PSSA was not designed to determine individual students' readiness for success in college or workplace.

The commission's proposal to develop a new set of exams linked to "a rigorous college and work-ready curriculum" might address some of the limitations of the PSSA, but there is no consensus on what such an exam should contain.

RAND Corp. research on the responses of schools to the federal No Child Left Behind Act shows that increasing the stakes attached to state tests leads to undesirable effects on school curriculum.

In elementary and middle schools across Pennsylvania, our research has found that many teachers already cut short regular instruction to engage in extensive test preparation, with activities ranging from teaching test-taking tricks to focusing lessons around tasks that are designed to mirror the format of the PSSA.

As a result, many teachers reduce time spent on topics and activities that are not tested, but are potentially very valuable in post-graduation education and careers.

Schools in the United States are often criticized for trying to cover too much content in insufficient depth, so policies that encourage teachers to cram in additional material for test-taking purposes only are likely to have further negative effects on the curriculum content.

Perhaps the greatest concern about the proposed high school graduation requirement is the risk that it will harm students it is intended to help.

Although research on effects of high school exit exams is inconclusive, it provides ample reason to worry about negative effects, such as an increase in the number of students who drop out of high school.

There are alternative and complementary approaches that hold promise for minimizing the negative effects of exit exams, while providing valuable information about what students know and can do.

One such approach is to require that any exam used to determine who graduates from high school should test students on material included in high-quality high school courses, and should also measure the skills and knowledge students will need when they graduate.

The PSSA meets neither of these conditions.

Like many professions, the educational assessment field has its own set of professional standards. One of the most important is that major decisions should not be made on the basis of a single test score.

We must not lose sight of the fact that producing well-prepared high school graduates takes reasoned policy approaches and reliable public funding.

There are promising initiatives that promote increased achievement, motivation and school engagement. These include programs that link students with the workplace and help them understand how their high school courses are related to what they will do later.

While testing can serve a valuable purpose, it can only do so if: the tests are designed to measure complex, important content; safeguards are developed to address harmful effects on students; and the tests are used as one part of a comprehensive strategy for producing more-qualified graduates.


Laura Hamilton is a senior behavioral scientist in the Pittsburgh office of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

This commentary originally appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer on March 28, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.