Is the glass half empty or half full?
It depends on how one views the announcement earlier this month that fewer than half of last year's state and local 10th graders who took the newly promulgated math and English examinations required for high school graduation actually passed both exams.
Last year's 10th graders, who are scheduled to graduate in 2004, are the first high schoolers who must first pass both exams before receiving a high school diploma.
Critics of the state of our public schools were quick to decry what they collectively term "the sad state" of an education system in which half of the students failed a relatively "non-rigorous and watered-down" series of basic proficiency tests.
Other critics said the tests did little more than show what educators and politicians already know: that there is an immense gap between white students in affluent suburban districts and nonwhite and/or non-English speaking students in poor inner city and rural districts. Not only are all students not receiving the same quality of education, there is a concern that those failing the exam will drop out of school rather than retake the portion or portions they failed.
Still others questioned the worth of the exam, given the fact that the
state had anticipated a mediocre performance during this first year when 10th graders were required to take the exam, so they actually lowered the passing scores to just above 50 percent.
The test covered California content standards-based learning materials that students had been taught up through the 10th grade. That means the 10th graders taking the test were not being stretched to know subject materials beyond their grade level. That roughly half the students are not achieving at grade level was understandably troubling to some.
Even the fact that nearly half passed both exams dismayed other critics who wonder aloud what will be the real worth of a high school diploma given at the end of 12 years of instruction, considering that it was awarded on the basis of mastering 10th grade level academic skills. Given the high-stakes nature of the exit exam as an accountability measure, will schools concentrate their resources on getting deficient students through the exit exams and ignore more rigorous courses in the 11th and 12th grade for students who are not deficient in basic academic skills?
Those on the other side of the opinion spectrum argue that there is ample reason to rejoice over the percentage of those who took and passed this exam on the first try or last year if they volunteered to take it as a ninth grader. At least, there is a common measurement in place to assess basic academic proficiencies. Besides, they point out that the results of the first round of tests are not conclusive. Students who fail one or both tests have several opportunities to retake that which they failed and that there are remedial resources in place to provide help to those needing it to pass the exam. The important thing, they suggest, is that a much higher percentage of students will eventually demonstrate the required proficiencies, thereby enriching the meaning of the high school diploma.
Those who generally support the notion of an exit exam argue that the tests will ensure that all graduating high school students will have the tools and education they need to succeed as they enter the workforce or prepare for higher education. And, the exit exam is but one ingredient in California's plan to increase academic standards and hold schools and students accountable for meeting basic learning requirements in the core subject areas.
When you get right down to it, the exit exam is primarily an accountability tool. Certainly, many education leaders, political leaders, and those of us who advocate for educational excellence in the community at large support accountability, which, until only a few years ago, was an unknown precept in public education. Accountability or what we prefer to call "Quality Assurance" has become public education's political mantra.
The exit exam is but the latest component to ensure all students reach a high level of academic standard. In recent years, California has conducted annual standardized testing as a way to measure the quality of teaching and learning taking place in our second- through 11th-grade classrooms.
While testing is a necessary function in measuring academic achievement, we must ensure the increasing amount of time our schools are spending in pre-testing, testing, and the other activities that detract from the teaching that is necessary for students to learn and achieve well to maximize their potential.
Consider the following non-instructional impacts on the traditional 175-day instructional school year, at say, the high school level.
First of all, let's be realistic: Very little substantive learning takes
place the first week and last two weeks of the school year -- about 15 school days.
The days before and after single and extended holidays are marginal at best. Those add up to roughly 21 days.
Then, there are 10 to 15 assemblies a year that take students out of classrooms. The resultant minimum-day schedules for those days are not optimum for learning.
The annual standardized tests take an additional five days.
That roughly leaves 119 days for quality instruction to take place in our classrooms each academic year. Using 50 minutes as a typical class period, that means high school students have just under 100 hours to learn and master each subject such as algebra, geometry, calculus, U.S. history, English, chemistry, physics, social studies and the like. That translates roughly to two and half 40-hour work weeks to study and master these topics.
My point is this: We need comprehensive testing to assess student
achievement, identify students who need specific assistance, put the pressure on students to achieve, and help teachers target skills students need. But, if we're not careful, we can easily allow testing itself to become a part of the problem rather than a solution, considering that the time spent in testing students takes away from the available time to teach the topics on which the student are being tested.
The public as well as each parent has a right to know if all students have achieved to a certain standard to become successful thinkers, thoughtful decision makers and holders of a knowledge base that is sufficient to be productive citizens in our democratic society as well as competitive in today's changing workforce.
However, testing, unchecked, will choke the life out of many excellent schools by driving gifted teachers out of classrooms and leading to debased and unnecessarily low standards.
Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at email@example.com.