Michigan Students Boycott Exam

K-12 Testing

Two-thirds of the juniors in the affluent Detroit suburb of Birmingham refused to take the Michigan High School Proficiency Test (HSPT) this year after concluding that the costs of receiving a low score outweighed any possible benefits. In one other district, nearby Troy, 30 percent of the students did not take the exam. Across the state however, most students took the test.


Last year, statewide, about two-thirds of the juniors were scored as below proficient on the new 11.5 hour test that purports to measure 10th grade knowledge and skills. Many students and parents were skeptical about the test after learning that some of last year s not-proficient students were high achievers, including many Birmingham students. They not only had grade point averages of B or better, but many also passed Advanced Placement courses, obtained high scores on the SAT or ACT, and gained admissions to selective colleges.


This year, a Birmingham high school guidance counselor informed parents and students that the law allows parents to exempt their children from the test. Many parents and students concluded that while there was little to be gained there were significant potential losses from taking the exam. There were no direct sanctions for a low score, such as denial of a diploma, and no rewards for performing well, except a gold seal on the diploma; but how students did, based on the four score levels, would appear on their transcripts and could make them look bad. After learning this information, many parents submitted a waiver for their children.


The consequences of this mass refusal are not as yet known. The HSPT comes on top of other state tests in grades 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8, plus district-mandated exams, university admissions tests, etc. Diane Smollen, state assessment director, told the Wall Street Journal, Public pressure is growing against testing. Already politicians are proposing different solutions, mostly to stiffen test requirements, such as removing the parental exemption clause or by acting against districts where too few students pass the test.


Important issues of standards and testing have surfaced with the refusal of many parents and students to take the exam.What, for example, is the meaning of poll results showing widespread support for higher standards when parents believe that tests purportedly based on those standards threaten their children s futures?


The issue of setting passing standards or levels on exams is complex and in other cases has been subject to criticism, as happened with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (see Examiner, Fall 1991, Spring 1992). Will Michigan revise a scoring structure that decides some students who pass an AP exam and get into schools like MIT are not proficient ?


Is there a problem in the exam itself, which would require modifications in the test, not just the scoring guides? Or is it in fact a solid test with properly difficult standards, as proponents of using high-stakes exams to shape school reform have been quick to claim?


These are issues which Michigan should take the time to address, along with the broader question of the role of testing in public education.