May 10, 2016

“High-Stakes” Tests are Hard to Find

By Bellwether

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young students working at computersThis spring, in schools across the country, standardized testing season is in full swing, and opponents are once again crying out against “high-stakes testing.” But that phrase can be misleading. In many states the stakes are much lower than you might think for students, teachers, and schools, and they’re likely to stay that way for a while.
Student consequences tied to tests are fairly low or nonexistent in most states. Graduation requirements and grade promotion policies tied to tests vary greatly between states and most have more holes than Swiss cheese. As of 2012, half of states had some sort of exit exam as a graduation requirement, but almost all these states had exceptions and alternate routes to a diploma if students didn’t pass the exam on the first try. Tying grade promotion to tests is less common, though some states have emulated Florida’s 3rd grade reading retention policy.  Now, just as tests become more rigorous, states are rolling back their graduation and promotion requirements tied to those tests, or offering even more flexibility if requirements are technically still in effect:

  • California eliminated graduation requirements tied to their exit exam in fall 2015.
  • Arizona repealed graduation requirements tied to testing in spring 2015 prior to administering the new AzMERIT tests.
  • Georgia waived their grade promotion requirement tied to new tests in grades three, five, and eight for the 2015-16 school year.
  • Ohio created new safe harbor policies this school year, which, among other things, prevents schools from using test results in grade promotion or retention until 2017-18 (except in the case of third grade reading tests).
  • New Jersey has had exit exams since 1982, but students can now fulfill the requirement using multiple exams, including the SAT, ACT and PARCC, and a proposed bill would pause the requirement altogether until 2021.

Teacher evaluations tied to tests are on pause or under revision. In 2014-15, half of states took the U.S. Department of Education up on their offer to pause tying test results to teacher ratings during the transition to new tests. Now, with the passage of ESSA, including student achievement in teacher evaluations is up to states, and many are in the process of making big changes:

  • New York placed a four-year hold on using state assessment scores in teacher evaluations.
  • Louisiana’s legislature is considering a bill, backed by the governor, to pause the use of test growth measures in teacher evaluations through 2016-17 and reduce the weight of test scores after that.
  • Alaska has released proposed regulations that would ban the use of statewide test results in teacher evaluations.

For schools, consequences from the state for poor test results could be a long way off. Before states can impose consequences on schools, they first have to identify schools as low-performers, either for all students or a certain subgroup. States were already identifying far fewer schools in need of improvement under ESEA waivers than they had under NCLB. Then, if states applied for an accountability pause in 2014-15, they could refrain from identifying new schools that year. Now, new ESSA accountability systems won’t be in place until 2017-18, and states can choose not to identify new schools in need of support until then. For some states, this adds up to a pause in identifying low-performing schools lasting from 2013-14 to 2017-18. Under ESSA, even if a school is flagged by their state’s accountability system for improvement, the first consequence will be making a plan to fix the problem, and many years could pass before more stringent measures kick in (and again, that will be left up to each state).
There is certainly a lot of anxiety around testing, but the tests may feel more high-stakes than they are. The disconnect between rhetoric and reality around testing is not new: on this blog last year, former Bellwether senior analyst Anne Hyslop compared those who “don’t believe in” testing to climate change deniers, and nearly two years ago, Bellwether’s Sara Mead wrote that the emotional force of the “test and punish” narrative was winning out over facts.
Here’s one way to shrink the gap: stop using “high-stakes testing” as a catch-all term. State policies differ dramatically, and between new state tests and the ESSA transition, many states have paused any real consequences for students, teachers, and schools. States could be doing a better job of communicating how their test scores are used in a given year, and how all the pauses, waivers, and phased-in plans will eventually add up into one coherent system. But, the next time you hear about a high-stakes test, make sure you ask for more details on what the stakes actually are.
Disclosure: I previously worked on PARCC test implementation and assessment policy at the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education, where I worked with some of the state education agencies mentioned in this post. Bellwether has also done work for the PARCC consortium.

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