News From the States

K-12 Testing

The Oregon Board of Education has voted to postpone implementation of its social studies tests for three years. According to the state's largest newspaper, The Oregonian, this decision was a response to widespread protests by social studies teachers. These included a constant barrage of newspaper op-ed articles, letters to the editors, a statewide petition launched by Portland area teachers, and lobbying of state education officials. In December 1998, Bill Bigelow, a Portland high school teacher, first exposed the terrible quality of the tests in an Oregonian article, "Social Studies Tests from Hell." Because he included a few items from the tests, state officials initially demanded the district fire him. Now, not only does he still have his job, but the state has been forced to admit that the tests are too poor to use. (The Oregonian article is reprinted in Rethinking Schools, Spring 1999, an issue which focuses on testing, available from RS, 1001 E. Keefe Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53212; 1-800-6669-4192;


Ohio's "4th Grade Reading Guarantee" legislation will prevent students from advancing to grade 5 unless they score "proficient" or above on the reading test, starting in the 2000-01 school year. Even test proponents have recognized that many students who don't reach the "proficient" level can in fact read and should not be retained. Moreover, the test was not designed to be used for high-stakes individual decisions and has not been validated for that use. State Sen. Eugene Watts, a sponsor of Ohio testing legislation, first said he would introduce legislation to modify this law. However, when some newspapers headlined that the reading standard was being lowered, Watts changed his mind. Unless the law is altered, 20 - 40 percent of Ohio's fourth graders could be retained in grade -- though retention has been repeatedly shown to be harmful (Examiner, Fall 1998). The state is also planning a similar test-based retention policy for sixth graders.


Also in Ohio, the state Supreme Court ruled that the law creating the state's voucher system was enacted unconstitutionally, because it was passed as part of a comprehensive appropriations bill. According to state Senator Michael Shoemaker, the law creating the Ohio Proficiency Tests was passed in a similar manner. No legal challenge has yet been filed, though thousands of students each year are denied a diploma based on possibly unconstitutional testing.


A survey of Maryland middle school principals around the state found strong support for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests administered to third, fifth and eighth graders (Examiner, Winter 1991-92). Survey respondents thought the exams helped improve curriculum and instruction. They did raise concerns about the staff time required to administer the exams and that individual scores are not reported. MSPAP has been conducted on a sampling basis in which each child takes only a part of the whole test. Scores are reported at the school level. State authorities are thinking of producing individual test scores. It is not clear whether that will reduce the breadth and richness of this performance exam. If each student takes the entire exam, the exam will have to be shortened. Alternatively, if the test continues to rely on a sampling approach, comparisons of student scores may lack adequate reliability.


Meanwhile, a Washington Post regional poll found that over half the Maryland teachers surveyed did not want to extend MSPAP to high school. Nearly half the Virginia teachers polled thought that state's Standards of Learning Test should be abandoned and one-fifth said the test should be modified. Washington, D.C., teachers were more supportive of the District's pending requirement that students achieve a certain score on the Stanford 9 to graduate, with 70 percent favoring the plan. In the region, slight majorities thought testing is needed to hold schools accountable and to measure student learning, but two-thirds thought, "Emphasizing testing leads schools to teach their students how to test well rather than to master the subject matter."


New York state education officials have decided that special education students will not have to pass Regent's exams to earn diplomas in the next five years. The state is phasing in a new set of mandatory graduation exams, starting with English for next year's graduates. The projected failure rate on the new tests has been very high. The state has not made a similar change for students with limited English proficiency, or students in vocational education programs. Nor has it approved an alternative based on performance assessments and portfolios which has been proposed by a group of innovative schools. Meanwhile, challenges to state exams from students with special needs are likely to escalate as the exams become more difficult.


Concerned parents in Nevada have filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education over the state's high school exit exam. Parent Pat Cunningham maintains that students are being tested on material they were never required to learn. Nearly 14 percent of the state's seniors face the prospect of not graduating. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it would support the complaint.