Wednesday, February 11, 2015

High-Stakes End of Course Exams Harm Students in Washington State

In the state of Washington, high school students who want a diploma this year must pass four exit exams known as end of course exams (EOCs). However, three bills were heard before the House Education Committee in Olympia last week that would decouple these exams from graduation requirements. As a national board certified teacher from a low-income school, I and fifteen students felt compelled to go down to Olympia on February 3 to speak in favor of one of these bills, HB 1363. We were all from the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE) on the Tyee Campus of SeaTac in the Highline School District, and a majority of our students speak English as a second language. Inspiringly, four students were even brave enough to testify before the House Education Committee in favor of HB 1363. (You can watch the testimony in the House Education Committee on tvw.org from Feb. 3 around 25:00.)

The most powerful testimony came from the most heroic human I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. Violeta is a senior at our school who lives in her own apartment with her daughter. She works a job after school, and has nevertheless earned a 3.6 GPA in her four years at ACE. Even though she received an A in Biology, she hasn’t passed the Biology EOC, which will be the only thing that might hold her back from graduation this year. She pointed out that few, if any, of the legislators in Olympia likely had to take an exit exam for their high school diploma. 

However, some representatives, like Chad Magendanz (R-Issaquah), ask how the state would ensure that students take the EOCs seriously if we don’t tie them to a graduation requirement. Rep. Magendanz seems to be unaware of one of the most highly respected assessments in the US, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is so respected precisely because it’s not high-stakes and teachers are never told in specifics what’s going to be on it. NAEP is used as barometer for how students in all fifty states fair in comparison to one another. And this is one of the ways that assessment can be used responsibly. 

To be sure, among professionals who study and implement standardized testing, there is profound agreement around the issue of making them high-stakes in nature: it’s a bad idea. What’s worse is that it’s clear that they exacerbate inequities in a public education system already chock full of them. Bruce D. Baker, professor of education at Rutgers, makes this point in a recent column published by Valerie Strauss on her Washington Post Blog, The Answer Sheet. A study in 2013 by Kevin Lang and Olesya Baker at Boston University found that increases in high-stakes exit exams are linked to higher incarceration rates. John Papay, Richard Murnane, and John Willet at Harvard found that high-stakes exit exams stopped low-income urban students in Massachusetts from graduating at disproportionately high rates. Multiple studies have found questions on these tests to harbor racial bias. In other words, a majority of questions asked are repeatedly answered correctly at higher rates by Caucasian students than by African-American or Latino students.

Furthermore, when a majority of students at a school speak a language other than English at home, we have a hard time knowing for sure whether the tests are actually measuring what they purport to measure, or if they’re measuring a student’s English language ability or cultural knowledge. 

I remember proctoring a test a few years ago during which students who’d recently arrived from the Dominican Republic could not explain why the main character in a reading passage would live in someone’s yard, and subsequently answered most of the questions associated with the passage incorrectly. It was because they didn’t know that, in the United States, Rover is nearly always a dog’s name. However, the test didn’t consider that that might be an issue.

When students from ACE met with my legislator, Senator Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), she rightly asked if there wasn’t a collection of evidence (COE) course offered, which the legislature created years ago as a means of offering students who couldn’t find success on the tests another way to meet the requirement. 

When Senator Nelson asked about the COE, students spoke at length about how, at our school, the COE class has been a terribly disorganized once-a-week class, sometimes lasting as long as three hours, where, for the Biology COE, teachers are essentially doing an hour of test prep covering biological concepts that are normally taught in class over the period of a month or more, and then students get online to take a test without help. 

Worse, because our district was unable to find the money to include the COE in the regular school day schedule, teachers in their first few years of teaching were asked to give up their after-school time (normally used for grading, planning, and making parent contact) to teach an additional class that often lasted two or three hours. Because the Biology COE is in its first year, and nobody has ever taught it before, teachers felt compelled to give up whole weekends trying to make the COE course meaningful for students who often weren’t even able to show up due to after school jobs. This is one sure way to speed up the burnout rate so many teachers already give into before they even get to year five as an educator. The issue was so concerning that nine students and five staff members went before our school board in December in hopes they might find a way to better support us.

While the COE classes are a good idea in theory, our circumstances speak to a larger problem with the EOC/COE requirement in our state: we’re not equipping our schools with the resources they would need were they to truly prepare all students to achieve success on these tests. 

Still, many argue that colleges have been, for some time, complaining of the low level of skills that students enter with. They continue to suggest that these high-stakes EOCs and/or COEs are one way of hedging that phenomenon. 

Wayne Au, a professor of education who studies high-stakes testing at the University of Washington at Bothell, has repeatedly harped on the fact that tests have historically been used by the state to deny people living on the margins of our society from finding ways to assimilate and become a stronger part of the fabric of our culture – going back to the eugenics movement. Many professors of assessment will tell you that, despite studying standardized, high-stakes tests for years, they’re still not convinced they can say with certainty what they’re actually measuring. However, we do know that scores on them are strongly linked to the zip code the student lives in and the educational attainment of their parents. 

Delinking the EOCs from graduation requirements would not mean that teachers could not still make them an integral part of a student’s grade. Their score on the EOC might, for example, comprise a certain percentage of the overall grade in that teacher’s class. But teachers know that one-time high-stakes measures of learning are damaging to students, not least because all assessments are human constructs and likely have at least some flaws. In professional development courses across the country, teachers learn that ongoing, multiple assessments of student performance are a far more reasonable way to assign a grade and determine whether a student is ready to move on. 

Is it important to ensure that students graduate high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to join the work force or enter college? Absolutely. Are high-stakes tests a part of that solution? Absolutely NOT. 

Rather, lawmakers should spend their time finding ways to lower class sizes in schools where it’s already difficult for students to learn and teachers to teach. They should also seriously consider bills like HB 1541, which would address issues of equity by ensuring better access to cultural competency training for school-based staff.

It is wildly inappropriate for lawmakers to stick to their guns on an issue for which there is so much evidence suggesting the possible harm of high-stakes tests. Are we, as a state, comfortable denying students like Violeta access to participating in the economy in more meaningful ways because she’s a few points short of achieving an arbitrary cut score on a Biology test that has been poorly implemented? I say Hell No.

Leaving these requirements in place could mean thousands of students who've earned all of their credits this June have to simply wait until the next time a test is offered before they can work with a high school diploma.

Truth and urgency emanate from this argument like heat off the sun for those of us who teach and learn in low-income schools of color around Washington. So I urge students and families from around the state to take yourselves down to Olympia and pack legislators’ offices on this issue – particularly the office of the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island), who told a group of students from Tyee last week that there is no support for eliminating the EOCs as graduation requirements in the Senate – despite that Senator John McCoy (D-Tulalip) put forth just such a bill.

Join students from Tyee, who are planning on returning to Olympia on February 16 with upwards of thirty students to lobby legislators around this important civil rights issue. Contact your legislators, in person if possible, and see if you can’t clear some of the clouds down in Olympia, and hope the Senate might see some of the blinding light the rest of us deal with on a daily basis. 


  1. "She works a job after school, and has nevertheless earned a 3.6 GPA in her four years at ACE. Even though she received an A in Biology, she hasn’t passed the Biology EOC, which will be the only thing that might hold her back from graduation this year."

    Then there are serious misalignment issues in the curriculum. I'm sorry, if a smart, capable girl as Violeta sounds cannot pass the Biology exam, then that screams to terrible standards being set to receive an A in that class.

    Look, I get the issue with standardized testing: I too teach at a predominantly low-income minority school, I came from a very similar environment and I saw many of my classmates that I went to school with struggle at that end.

    But I also see a particular issue: what do we want a HS diplomat to mean and represent? Maybe passing Biology isn't that important to that end, but clearly, some things are important to that end and others aren't. We need a way in which we can meaningful say that students that hold those diplomas have shown the ability to meet some sort of bar.

    Maybe the bar is dependent on starting circumstances? But I'm also really concerned with the very real phenomenon of mostly white teachers holding people of my racial background to lower standards and teaching them this way.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Ferny.

      If you'd made that comment to me in person, I think it would have led us into an extremely long and insightful dialogue.

      Where I think we probably can agree for now is that there is misalignment - particularly with the Biology EOC - and poor implementation of the COE, which should give all of our legislators pause when they consider whether these should be graduation requirements.