FairTest's Testimony to the Rhode Island Legislature on Graduation Exams

Executive Summary[1]

Testimony of Lisa Guisbond
Policy Analyst for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)
Rhode Island House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare
State of Rhode Island General Assembly


February 26, 2014


Since its creation in 1985 by leaders of major civil rights, education reform and student advocacy organizations, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, Inc. (FairTest) has studied the impact of high-stakes standardized testing on educational equity and quality.


While standardized exams have their purpose, they have mistakenly become the centerpiece of school reform, with dire consequences for our students and schools. We agree with the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Professor Robert Reich, who said recently, “We’re turning our schools into test-taking factories. We’re teaching children how to take standardized tests rather than how to think. The irony is we’re doing this at the very time when the economy is becoming less standardized than ever. Computers and software are taking over all routine, standardized tasks. The challenges of the future require the ability to solve and identify new problems, think creatively outside standard boxes, and work collaboratively with others. An obsessive focus on standardized tests can make our children less prepared for this future rather than better prepared.”


Because of the overwhelming evidence that high-stakes testing (including high school graduation exams) does more harm than good and does not improve the quality of education for underserved student populations, we support Senate Bills 2185 and 2059, which would end the use of standardized tests as graduation requirements (also House Bill 7256, which would do so until 2020). In addition, we support Senate 2135, which would establish a commission to study Common Core standards and assessments and their appropriateness as a graduation requirement.


Here are our primary reasons:


1)      Exit exams deny diplomas to tens of thousands of U.S. students each year, regardless of whether they have stayed in school, completed all of their other high school graduation requirements and demonstrated competency in other ways (Dee & Jacob, 2006). They give students who have worked hard, played by the rules and stayed in school the status of high school dropouts, with the same barriers to opportunity and employment. This creates an enormous and growing cost to society.

2)      A NECAP graduation test will harm the groups of students that education leaders say they most want to help.Rhode Island’s recent NECAP results put 34% of low-income, 37% of African-American and Latino, 61% of English language learners and 56% of students with disabilities at risk of being denied high school diplomas (GoLocalProv, 2014).

3)      The most comprehensive national research has found that test-based incentives, including exit exams, increase teaching to the test and yield an inflated and inaccurate picture of student knowledge.A review by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that high school graduation tests in particular have done nothing to lift student achievement but have raised the dropout rate an average of 2% (Hout & Elliott, 2011).

4)      The “model” exit exam state, Massachusetts, still has persistent, unacceptably large gaps in educational opportunity and achievement.The former Massachusetts secretary of education, Paul Reville, reflected on the state’s 20 years of education reform in a recent commentary. “We were going to eliminate the correlation between zip codes and educational achievement and attainment. I'm sorry to say that, two decades later, it is clear that we've failed to meet that challenge. There is still an iron-law correlation in the commonwealth between socioeconomic status and academic achievement” (2013).

5)      In Massachusetts, disparities in dropout rates persist more than 10 years after the state adopted MCAS high school graduation tests.Latino and African-American students drop out at rates three to four times that of white students, and 11th and 12th graders who have not passed MCAS are more than 13 times more likely to drop out of school than those who have passed (MA DOE, 2013).

6)      Students with disabilities have been hit particularly hard and make up a steadily growing portion of Massachusetts students who don’t graduate because of the MCAS graduation test. Students receiving special education were five times more likely to fail MCAS in 2002-03; by 2011-12, they were 15 times more likely to fail. Kruger and McIvor concluded, “The MCAS graduation requirement has become an unintentional mechanism for preventing many students in special education from obtaining a high school diploma” (2013).

7)      High-stakes testing undermines rather than improves education.Untested subjects are ignored, while tested topics narrow to test-coaching programs. Since tests are mostly multiple choice, students focus on rote learning to identify correct answers instead of learning to think and apply their knowledge (Koretz, 2005).

8)      Graduation tests have “measurement error,”which means some children will fail even though they know the subject (Rogosa, 2001).

9)      A student’s transcript, not a test score, is what makes a high school diploma truly meaningful and gives the most accurate picture of a student’s readiness for college and career.A major study released last week confirmed this in regards to standardized college admissions exams. Among their conclusions was that high school grades are much stronger predictors of undergraduate performance than are standardized test scores (Hiss, 2014).

10)    Moving to new PARCC tests based on Common Core standards will not address the problems caused by high stakes. The limited inclusion of “performance tasks” does not overcome pressure to focus on rote learning to prepare for multiple-choice and short answer questions (FairTest, 2013).

11)    There are better ways to assess students and evaluate schools.The New York Performance Standards Consortium, for example, uses a performance-based assessment approach, tied to project-based learning, which has been highly successful (2013).


In conclusion, we quote William Hiss, former Dean of admissions at test-optional Bates College. Upon the release of a study of test-optional college admissions, Hiss said: "Human intelligence is so multifaceted, so complex, so varied, that no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it.”


This is a condensed version of our full testimony, which is attached below and includes a reference section at its conclusion.

FairTest-Testimony-to-RI-GeneralAssembly-Committee-on-Health-Education-and-Welfare02-26-14.pdf454.08 KB