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Are High-Stakes Tests Punishing Some Students?

Share Can high-stakes tests cure what ails education? Today, Education World explores the issue of high-stakes testing. We examine whether the tests hurt some students, especially English-learning, low-income, and learning-disabled students.

It sounds so simple: Test kids on what they should know, and hold teachers -- and students -- accountable for those scores. If students don't pass the test, then hold them back a grade or deny them their high school diploma.

However, as large numbers of children -- including many low-income, ethnic- or racial-minority, and special-education students -- fail those tests, a quiet revolt is mounting. The revolt is led by those who feel that a single test should not be the basis for such things as getting a diploma or being promoted to the next grade.

That revolt includes some teacher unions, student groups, and parent organizations, all comprising people who disagree with the trend toward instituting exit exams across the nation. According to the American Federation of Teachers, 28 states now require exit exams for high school seniors to earn a diploma.


The revolt against testing is poking its head up in legal circles too. The American Civil Liberties Unions in Indiana and Massachusetts say the tests aren't fair to all students.

"The [Massachusetts tenth-grade] test is a very oversimplified view of education reform," said Nancy Murray, director of the Bill of Rights Education project with the ACLU of Massachusetts. Murray said the test is unfair because it is rigid, inappropriate, and inadequate as the sole determinant of a quality education, especially for those who are bilingual or disabled.

The ACLU of Massachusetts issued a Public Advisory about their concern that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) punishes poor, ethnic-minority students the most, Murray said. According to the ACLU advisory, there is a testing gap in Massachusetts between rich and poor communities. About 65 percent of students in low-income districts fail a portion of the test compared with 12 percent of students in affluent towns.

Based on the results of the MCAS last year, white students scored significantly better than ethnic minority students. In Boston, 43 percent of white students in tenth grade failed the math test, and 85 percent of Hispanic students failed it. In fact, Hispanic students tended to score the lowest in all portions of the test compared with other minority students.

Although the ACLU of Massachusetts opposes the test, it has not filed a lawsuit. "There have been so many bad legal opinions, especially out of Texas, we have not filed a lawsuit at this time," Murray told Education World.


Not everyone agrees that the MCAS hurts students. The tests are necessary because local school districts did not adopted serious standards for graduation, said James Peyser, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education.

Sample Questions from a Tenth-Grade Test

Could you pass this test? Here are three sample questions from the tenth-grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

1. Which of the points below is not collinear with the others?
M (3, -2)   N (-5, 6)   S (-9, 10)   T (10, -21)

A. N only
B. S only
C. T only
D. They are all collinear.

2.  The amplitude, frequency, and shape of an electrical signal can be displayed and measured using

A. a signal generator.
B. a multimeter scope.
C. an oscilloscope.
D. an odometer.

3.  The Petition of Right that the English Parliament forced King Charles I to sign in 1628 included the principle of habeas corpus, which means that

A. only a legislative body can collect taxes in time of peace.
B. civil law cannot apply to the clergy.
C. martial law can only be applied by the head of the government.
D. no one can be imprisoned unless charged with a specific crime within a reasonable time.


"The real issue is that some people are advocating overriding the MCAS," he told Education World. "The fact that Massachusetts students are scoring in the 'needs improvement' category on state tests but outperform their peers nationwide reflects the state of school standards across the country."

Remediation is the solution to the high numbers of students who are failing, said Peyser. Massachusetts has designated $20 million for school districts with large numbers of failing students. In Boston, for example, the school district is offering a five-week summer program for students (in most grades) who failed the reading and math portions of the test. The program will provide small classes and instruction in two-hour blocks.

The city is also developing a 12-month program that entails summer school plus a transitional academic year, including extra support in literacy and math for at-risk students in grades 3, 6, and 9.

In Massachusetts, the incoming sophomores will be the first required to pass the math and literacy portions of the test in order to receive diplomas. About 40 percent of that class failed the math portion when they were in eighth grade, and 13 percent failed the English/language arts portion. Unless their scores improve, many won't receive their diplomas unless they pass the MCAS before the end of their senior year. Students who fail will have several opportunities to retake the test and will have to retake only the subject(s) they failed.

The scores of the incoming sophomores (based on their eighth-grade test scores) may be better than those of the seniors who just graduated. Fifty-two percent of the seniors who graduated this year failed the math portion when they took the test as sophomores in 1998. Those students received their diplomas anyway because the requirement to pass the MCAS wasn't in effect for their class.

There has been some discussion of an appeals process for students. Currently, all students are required to pass the math and reading portions of the exam, including bilingual and learning-disabled students. The Massachusetts Department of Education is proposing that an alternate assessment of students with disabilities be devised so that all students receive instruction based on the state learning standards and participate in the state's mandated high-stakes test.


An Indiana court struck down a preliminary request last month by the ACLU for an injunction against the state's mandatory high school exit exam. The ACLU filed a class action suit representing 1,300 students with disabilities who are required to pass the exam in order to receive their diplomas. "These students have been in special education classes, and they were told if they met certain requirements, they'd receive their diplomas," said Paige Freitag, a staff attorney for the ACLU in Indiana. The ACLU plans on going back to court within a few weeks to ask it to rule that the state exit exam is unfair to students with disabilities.

Although the state allows students to retake any portion of the test they were unable to pass on the first try and provides remedial help, many students were still unable to pass the tests, Freitag told Education World.

The class action suit will hinge on two legal claims: The state denied the students' due process rights by changing the rules for graduation without providing sufficient time for disabled students to learn the material, and it did not adequately provide for their special needs as indicated in their Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) when they took the tests. The lawsuit asserts that if a student's IEP provides for either an exemption from the state test or modifications or adaptations in the testing, the state must honor those conditions.

From the Education World Archive

Check out these other stories in Education World's "Are High-Stakes Tests the Answer?" series:

  • Should Standardized Tests Determine Who Is Held Back?.

  • Some Teachers, Students, Parents Say No to Tests!.

  • How Important Should One Test Be?


    In Wisconsin, students with disabilities are being allowed testing accommodations so that more can take the test. The accommodations include increased time to take a test, use of a scribe to write down answers, and use of a reader to read instructions and questions aloud. Those types of accommodations will allow about 85 percent of students with disabilities to participate in the Wisconsin State Assessment System, according to a study authored by Eva M. Kubinski at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Education Research.

    For those students unable to be tested, even with accommodations, the state developed an alternate performance indicator tied to the state's standards for use by schools to assess the 2 percent of Wisconsin students with severe disabilities or limited English proficiency, Kubinski wrote in her paper.


    A group in California called Expose Racism & Advance School Excellence (ERASE), affiliated with the Applied Research Center, points out that exit tests unfairly punish poor students and those of color for attending substandard schools. They report that virtually every state with a high school exit exam has a disproportionate number of students of color who have passed all other requirements but fail to graduate or receive a certificate of completion instead of a diploma. That discrimination, says the organization, is the reason high-stakes exit exams should be eliminated.

    ERASE claims that in order for school districts to have higher scores, school districts throughout the nation may inflate their numbers by forcing students who have passed their courses but fail the tests to repeat a grade or by encouraging them to drop out of school. The dropout rate of Latino students in 1998 was 30 percent, more than four times higher than that of whites, which is about 8 percent. The dropout rate for black students was 14 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

    Other Articles in the "Are High Stakes Tests the Answer?" Series"

    Diane Weaver Dunne
    Education World®
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    Originally published 06/29/2000
    Links last updated 11/18/2005