Nearly one-third of all fourth- and eighth-grade students in Louisiana may be held back this year because of the state's new high-stakes testing program designed to boost student competency in basic skills.
Students who flunked the reading and math standardized tests administered in March will have another chance to pass the tests in July after attending summer school. If they score at the "approaching basic" competency level or higher on the tests, the students will pass to the next grade if they have also met other school-district requirements. The state expects about half of those students to pass on the second attempt.
"The notion of high-stakes testing was brought on as one component of Louisiana's overall reform efforts and not in isolation," said Scott Norton, director of standards and assessments for the Louisiana Department of Education. "Other parts of the comprehensive reform include rigorous content standards, new assessments, a school and district accountability program, a kindergarten through grade 3 reading and math initiative, and a new technology program.
"Through a combination of these efforts, we are beginning to see signs of improvement," Norton told Education World. "ACT scores are up, the number of students needing college remediation is down, norm-referenced test scores are up, the standards-based test scores are up, and the kindergarten through grade 3 reading scores have improved as well."
Howard Gardner, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critic of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard psychometric instruments, advises caution when educators emphasize the results of one test. "It is always risky to pin a life decision on one measure, and this is particularly true when it comes to the fate of a child," Gardner told Education World. "I am not in favor of social promotion per se; I am in favor of decisions about promotion being made on the fullest body of evidence, not just one strand."
"Regarding urban performance, I think that our state is not unique, in that disadvantaged students have not performed as well as some more affluent students," Norton said.
Some educators believe the tests penalize urban children. "Poor kids almost always get a lesser education, and a test won't solve the problem," said Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, testing-reform advocacy group. Several factors affect poor children's academic performances, and more money doesn't always close the gap between their test scores and the scores of their white, middle class counterparts, Neill told Education World.
"We were supportive of the Louisiana legislation," said Jamie Horwitz, speaking for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which supports standards testing. The organization's wants to make sure the state continues to financially support remedial services for those students who fail the tests, he said.
The trend for high-stakes testing is on the rise. In 1996, only three states had promotion policies based on standardized tests; in 1999, 13 states had such policies, according to Making Standards Matter 1999: Executive Summary, an annual report by the AFT.
The report also found that 28 states require high school seniors to pass an exit exam -- a test that requires students to achieve minimum competency -- to receive a high school diploma. Half of those states require students achieve at least tenth-grade standards or higher to earn a diploma.
Louisiana is one of the few states requiring an exit exam for students in the fourth and eighth grades. The state expects to retain about 10 to 15 percent this year, a higher number than last year when about 6 to 8 percent were held back.
The testing program by the Louisiana Department of Education takes aim at ending its long-standing practice of social promotion, which the state says is harmful to students and leads to higher dropout rates.
The AFT supports Louisiana's policy to end social promotion. The organization maintains that students who pass to the next grade without learning are more likely to fail later in school.
Not everyone agrees. "Grade retention doesn't work," said Neill, of FairTest. Research has found that retaining students raises dropout rates, he added.
"This [retention] is a failed policy, but it doesn't stop politicians from jumping on the band wagon," he said. "The kids are hurt by this, and the testing profession warns that you don't make grade-retention decisions based on a test."
The state has an appeals process for students who initially fail the tests. The process requires students meet several conditions to be promoted. Those conditions include:
Diane Weaver Dunne
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Diane Weaver Dunne