State Assessment Update

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, July 2009

A Texas assessment reform bill heads to the governor after a compromise on grade promotion tests, and the Pennsylvania's Governor Rendell retreats as the state's exit exam struggle continues to roil. California’s budget crisis prompts a vote to halt the state exit exam. Meanwhile, Alabama cut state testing in half while other states also are reducing testing: is this the start of a nationwide trend?


The 2009 state legislative session voted to change the way schools must use tests to determine grade promotion and high school graduation. Governor Rick Perry threatened to veto the version initially passed by the House and Senate which would have eliminated the use of the state test to determine promotion in grades 3, 5 and 8. Legislators agreed to a compromise that will keep the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) exams for promotion decisions in grades 5 and 8 but eliminate the requirement in grade 3. Extensive research shows that students who are held back do not progress academically as well as comparable children who are promoted, and that standardized tests are poor tools for making promotion decisions.

The bill also changes Texas high school graduation requirements, eliminating the use of the TAKS as an exit test and moving to a series of end-of-course exams. Beginning with the freshman class of 2011-12, Texas high schoolers must pass end-of-course tests in Algebra I, Algebra II, and geometry; biology, chemistry, and physics; English I, English II, and English III; and world geography, world history and United States history. To get a diploma, students will need an average passing grade on the three tests in each of the four core subject areas. "The expectation is that it's going to be tougher for students," said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association.

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of blacks and a fifth of Hispanics in the class of 2009 were denied diplomas because they failed one or more sections of the TAKS. Overall, 36,358 students, or 14 percent of the class, failed, including 7% of whites. National research shows that graduation tests disproportionately harm students of color and do not lead to improved learning or future success.




Facing an increasingly pitched battle over his high school exit exam proposal, Governor Edward Rendell made a tactical retreat, announcing in June that he would suspend funding graduation test development “to allow the emerging consensus to develop.” In another retreat, the state has agreed orally that any new exit exams would only count for some 20% of a student's grade in a course.

The announcement came as deep-pocketed proponents lined up against legislators and a coalition of educators, parents, administrators, advocates for students with disabilities, and civil rights groups. After the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) signed a $201 million contract to develop Graduation Competency Assessments (GCAs)--ignoring legislation meant to block them--the Senate fired back. It voted nearly unanimously to prohibit the PDE "from developing any new statewide public high school graduation requirements unless established by an act of the General Assembly." Senator Jane Orie, a GCA opponent, also charged that the governor engaged in “pay to play” politics, after reports that contract winner Data Recognition Corp. officials employed a lobbyist in Harrisburg and donated $22,000 to Governor Rendell.

The pro-GCA money continues to flow. Team Pennsylvania Foundation plans to invest up to $1 million in a new group called the SmarterPa Coalition to “raise awareness of the need for stronger graduation requirements.” Team Pennsylvania is co-chaired by Rendell and Wendie DiMatteo Holsinger, CEO of ASK Foods Inc.

Pennsylvania high schoolers must now pass either local assessments or the current state PSSA test to graduate. The new mandatory state end-of-course exams would allow only a limited local alternative under strict state control.

The Pennsylvania Coalition for Effective and Responsible Testing (CERT), a broad-based alliance that includes FairTest, is backing an alternate, assessment reform proposal. It focuses on improving the quality of local assessments rather than mandating state exit exams. The CERT plan calls for the PDE to provide validated exams, called Keystone 2.0 exams, for voluntary use by districts as end of course/final exams. If the federal government approves the use of some Keystone tests for its Adequate Yearly Progress requirements, then those specific exams could replace the PSSA. However, they could not be a graduation requirement and could count for no more than 20% of a course grade. The Keystone 2.0 exams would also protect diverse learners by requiring accommodations, alternatives and individualization for students with disabilities and English language learners.



California’s mammoth budget crisis is the backdrop for a dramatic vote to halt the state’s high school exit exam, the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). In late June, the legislature approved a fiscal package including suspension of the graduation requirement. This came after the six Democratic legislators on the influential Joint Budget Committee proposed the measure, saying it is unfair to demand that students pass the exams to graduate when school resources are being decimated. The four Republicans voted against it, and Republican Governor Schwarzenegger has vowed to veto the budget in order to retain the exam.

"Why would you hold kids accountable to a standard that we're not providing the resources for them to meet?" said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who had sponsored unsuccessful legislation in 2004 to make the exit exam part of a multiple measures system of determining readiness to graduate.

This move to end the exit exam represents the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle to revise a system that many view as educationally damaging and unhelpful. It drew strong praise in a statement from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Spending millions of dollars for a high stakes test that has shown little value, and denied high school diplomas and a decent chance for a future to far too many minority, English language learners and low income students in California, is not only wasteful; it’s also unethical,” said The Civil Rights Project’s Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara.

Emerging trend to scale back high-stakes tests?

A move in Alabama to scale back standardized testing could signal a nationwide trend, with states like Virginia, Minnesota, Washington, Massachusetts, as well as Florida and Georgia, cutting back some testing to save time and/or money. It’s unclear if the result of these cutbacks will really mean less testing time for students since states and districts seem increasingly enthralled with using benchmark exams. These are meant to determine whether students are on track to perform well on NCLB-required testing but only further intensify teaching to narrow tests. And if the result of such testing cutbacks is even more of a focus on math and reading, the only two subjects that count for NCLB, the trend could simply exacerbate the problem of curricular narrowing caused by the federal law.

Examples of state initiatives include:


  • Alabama will cut state standardized testing in half in grades three through eight, reducing student testing time from two weeks a year to one. Language, science and social science testing will be eliminated, leaving only reading and math.
  • The Minnesota legislature and governor, fearing politically unpalatable failure rates, voted to ditch a math exam requirement for the Class of 2010, which was the first required to pass a set of high school exit exams. Many educators had said the 11th grade math test was too difficult and would depress graduation rates. The legislation means students must pass the math test once or fail it three times to graduate.
  • Washington Superintendent Randy Dorn campaigned for office promising to eliminate the state’s controversial Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) tests. Beginning in 2010, Dorn is moving to replace WASL with shorter tests, including fewer writing prompts on the math tests. “We're going to make it more humane, less pressure,” Dorn said. In June, Dorn requested that the legislature delay the requirement that students pass math and science tests to graduate. He said student will need time to master new standards and won’t be ready by the current deadline of 2013. Students will still have to pass the new reading and writing tests to graduate in 2012. Juanita Doyon, director of Parent Empowerment Network, said doing away with the WASL is a step in the right direction, but the larger issue of punishing students, schools, and teachers based on standardized test scores remains. “Unfortunately, Superintendent Dorn believes in using a single test to deny high school diplomas, as does our governor. And with No Child Left Behind sanctions still in place, whatever test is used will carry high stakes.”
  • The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted in February to postpone for two years the planned implementation of a high-stakes history exam. The test would have added to current requirements that students pass English, math and science tests to graduate. Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester cited the state’s fiscal crisis as a reason for delaying the exam.
  • Louisiana legislators are tinkering with their high-stakes testing system to address the problem of low high school graduation rates. New dropout statistics show just 52% of Louisiana 7th graders eventually get high school diplomas. Education committee members voted unanimously for a bill that would provide an easier path through the state’s high-stakes testing system for students who want to pursue a trade rather than attend a four-year college. Bills in both chambers would create a vocational track leading to a diploma geared toward trade school rather than college. The bills have strong support in the legislature and from Governor Bobby Jindal, but business groups oppose them.