Continuing State Battles Over High-Stakes Testing

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, December 2008

Maryland's Board of Education rejected a one-year delay in implementing the state's new graduation test, while signaling it may consider revising its graduation requirements. FairTest provided invited testimony to the board, suggesting how the state could construct a different system. Texas appears on the verge of ending its Bush-era mandate that students pass a standardized test in grades 3, 5 and 8 to be promoted to the next grade. In Pennsylvania, the battle continues over whether the Board of Education and governor will be able to impose a new graduation test in the face of substantial opposition and tightening budgets. Rhode Island has increased the weight given to its standardized test in graduation decisions. In Washington, voters elected as state Superintendent of Public Instruction a former teacher, principal and union leader who promised to overhaul the state’s high-stakes exams and bring back things like social studies, art and music.

In October, the Maryland Board of Education voted 7-4 not to delay its new graduation exam requirements, due to take effect with this year’s seniors. However, there seemed to be a willingness to consider possible "refinements" such as using the tests as final exams that would count for 20% of the course grade.

In Texas, the Legislature’s House and Senate Education Committees propose ending the requirement that students in grades 3, 5 and 8 pass the state test to be promoted to the next grade. A law requiring the use of grade promotion tests was passed in 1999 at the behest of then- Governor George W. Bush. According to Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, districts would decide how to make promotion decisions, using test scores, grades or other criteria. The new accountability plan would also change the way schools are rated by using three years of test scores instead of just one. Researchers have exhaustively demonstrated that grade retention is harmful and retention based on test scores is inaccurate. (See materials at

Despite legislation requiring a one-year delay in moving forward on a new graduation test, the Pennsylvania Board of Education is developing a request for proposals to construct the new exams this year. Key legislators decried this as contrary to the spirit of their agreement with the board. Pennsylvania now has a system of using local assessments for graduation (or districts can use the existing state test). Proponents of the new statewide exams say the district assessments are often inadequate. Opponents of a single high-stakes state exam, including teachers unions, school boards, administrators, civil rights and disability organizations, call for strengthening local assessments. The state recently contracted with academic researchers to evaluate a sample of local assessments. Activists are continuing to work with legislators, though a key opponent of the state test, Senate Education Committee Chairman James Rhoades (R), died in an October automobile accident.

In the face of vocal, organized opposition from parents, teachers and advocates for minority, low-income students and students with disabilities, the Rhode Island Board of Regents voted in September to increase the weight placed on state test scores in graduation decisions. The new policy makes state standardized tests count for one-third of a student’s graduation requirements in English and in math, beginning in 2012. The other two-thirds of graduation requirements for each subject will be based on four years of high school coursework, senior projects, and portfolios. The previous policy limited the weight placed on state test scores in graduation decisions to no more than 10%, but state officials said a change was needed to ensure consistent standards from district to district. Critics of the new policy say it is confusing and do not believe official claims that the test will not be used to deny diplomas.

A network of activists, the Statewide School Improvement Team Collaborative, vowed to continue to battle over the issue. Kim Bolton, a founder of the parents group, said she was disappointed at the board's decision to increase the weight of the NECAP test. However, she said she was encouraged that the group's efforts played a role in delaying the implementation date to 2012 and lowering the cut-off score.

In Washington, three-term Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson was ousted by former teacher, principal, legislator and union president Randy Dorn, who rode to victory on a promise to replace the state’s high-stakes testing system with a less costly, less time-consuming one. Dorn exploited widespread dissatisfaction with the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) tests, voicing concerns about the inordinate time spent on WASL and other testing and the resultant loss of time spent on social studies, art, music and other untested subjects. “WASL takes up 12% to 13% of instruction. Then there are the other tests on the side, and we’re testing our kids to death,” Dorn said. Parents and educators working for WASL reform were optimistic about the possibility for positive change. Juanita Doyon, director of the Parent Empowerment Network, who supported Dorn, said, “If the current alternatives [to the WASL] could be improved and validated and others added, so that there were truly multiple paths to diploma validation, it would be a huge improvement over the current system.”