States Adopt Test-Based Promotion Policies

International Testing

Following the growing trend of improperly using standardized tests to make high stakes decisions about students, several states have passed or are currently considering measures that would mandate the use of test scores as a sole or primary factor in determining grade promotion in elementary and middle school years.

According to the Education Commission of the States, about 10 states have passed laws basing promotion decisions on student test scores, while another 6 base decisions on some combination of test scores and other factors. Several of the states give districts discretion in choosing the assessment and/or developing criteria for promotion where a test score is used as one factor. Additionally, some large city districts, such as Chicago, Boston, and New York, have chosen to implement promotion and mandatory summer school policies in which tests can be a sole basis for retention.

While the National Research Council (Examiner, Fall 1998), many test publishers including Riverside, Harcourt Brace and ETS, and the professional standards for testing have each strongly recommended against the use of a single test for making important educational decisions about individual students, the number of states adopting such measures has grown rapidly. Some states even use a test originally designed to assess school or district performance to measure individual students -- another form of test misuse strongly objected to by testing experts.

Parents, educators and advocates in a growing number of states are voicing strong opposition to these measures, particularly their harmful effects on teaching and learning. They point to a growing tendency for teachers to focus narrowly on what is contained in the tests to the detriment of other areas. Research has overwhelmingly shown that retaining students in grade does not lead to improved academic achievement but increases the likelihood that students will drop out (see fact sheet, Testing and Grade Retention).

Historically, retention has disproportionately affected poor students, students of color or those with special needs, and males. According to a recent report by the Applied Research Center, these students will be more at risk of long term failure as they are more likely to be placed in remedial classrooms where they are do not receive the high quality educational programs they need to catch up (Examiner, Spring 1999).

Several states' laws do require districts to implement intervention programs for students at risk of non-promotion, but advocates question whether so-called "remediation" programs, such as mandatory summer school, will lead to real educational improvements.

According to researchers in Chicago, the leader in using test scores to determine promotion, the results of such programs are mixed at best. One study, 4-year Evaluation Report of Chicago Public Schools Leadership by Parents United for Responsible Education and Chicago Association of Local School Councils, reports that negative effects of retention are beginning to be felt, including rising high school drop out rates, drops in high school enrollment citywide, and increased instructional time devoted to test coaching activities geared toward the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The report cites Ernest House of the University of Colorado, who concluded the retention initiative costs upwards of $100 million. "It is astonishing that a program so controversial and that costs so much money has not been independently evaluated after three years," House commented.