OPINION: Ditching high school exams is wrong answer to testing concerns

Gov. Brian Kemp greets state school Superintendent Richard Woods on Tuesday, when he announced legislation Tuesday to “reduce high-stakes K-12 testing in Georgia.” Kemp and Woods traveled the state over the summer talking with teachers and parents about the number of tests Georgia’s students take each year, which they say is too many.
Gov. Brian Kemp greets state school Superintendent Richard Woods on Tuesday, when he announced legislation Tuesday to “reduce high-stakes K-12 testing in Georgia.” Kemp and Woods traveled the state over the summer talking with teachers and parents about the number of tests Georgia’s students take each year, which they say is too many.

Most parents object to testing in early grades, not high school

Gov. Brian Kemp and School Superintendent Richard Woods heeded teacher and parent complaints about test overload, announcing their intent last week to advance legislation to eliminate five annual Georgia Milestones exams, four of which are end-of-course exams that serve as finals in high school.

“We are responding to the persistent and urgent concerns raised by classroom teachers, students and parents, who have been sounding the alarm about the negative impacts of excessive high-stakes testing for years,” said Woods.

Many people greeted the news with relief that students would face less testing under Senate Bill 367, which was introduced last week. But there ought to be more discussion of the purpose of the exams before we toss them.

While I understand the desire of Kemp and Woods to act on concerns about testing, are the EOC final exams in English, math, science and social studies traumatic to high school students? These are teenagers preparing to go off to college or workforce training where grades and licensure will often depend on testing.

"Well, if you're someone who is concerned about too much testing, high school is strange place to look. Even students in states like Georgia, which has relatively many end-of-course exams, still average, at most, about two tests per year of high school," said Adam Tyner, co-author of the 2019 national report, "End-of-Course Exams and Student Outcomes."

One of the main objections to high school testing has been that it prevents graduation, which is a finding from several studies on high school exit exams, said Tyner. In his study, he found the states that had the most end-of-course exams actually had higher graduation rates than other, similar states, and the states with the most EOCs also appeared to have slightly higher college entrance exam scores, although this was only statistically significant for math scores.

“In any case, there was no evidence that end-of-course exams are reducing graduation rates,” said Tyner. “And in high school, students already take a final exam for most courses, so eliminating the state EOC may not actually reduce testing at all.

Unlike off-the-shelf standardized tests that are often irrelevant to what students are studying, the EOC exams were created by the state Department of Education to reflect the Georgia standards that students are supposed to be learning.

All told, the federal government requires 17 tests over a child’s K-12 career to measure core competencies in specific grade spans. Georgia is down to 24 annual state exams after the General Assembly eliminated eight in 2016. Due to federal requirements, the state had little room to slash testing much further in the elementary and middle grades, although Kemp and Woods also propose to drop the fifth grade Milestones social studies exam.

So, they turned to high school. Georgia remains well above the federal government requirement for high school testing; the feds only stipulate one test per core subject across high school. But Georgia administers two EOC math tests: algebra and geometry.

“We are saying, loud and clear, that it’s the teacher, not the test, that makes a difference. I do not believe the only way to assign value to a subject is to pair it with a high-stakes test,” said Woods, “and I do not believe the current high-stakes testing regime has produced positive results for student learning.”

“I think what we’re seeing in some of these states is that there is concern about too many tests that actually emanates from not just state tests, but excessive formative and practice tests that have been implemented as a result of high-stakes testing in grades three through eight. These practice tests really do eat up instructional time,” said Tyner, associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

“But since the state can’t eliminate the tests that are required by federal law, which requires very little testing in high school, they throw the anti-testing folks a bone by eliminating high school tests, even though few people are even suggesting that high school testing is a problem,” he said. “Also, most of the objections to high-stakes testing are much more of a concern with small children than with teenagers, who likely benefit from shouldering more of the responsibility for their own learning.”

“I think Georgia is in a sweet spot with 24 tests,” said Anne Hyslop, a former U.S. Department of Education senior policy adviser in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development and now with the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit working to improve the educational outcomes of high school students.

“The goal for Georgia is producing more college- and career-ready graduates, so it’s important for the state to have a consistent measure, not just for ninth or 10th grade, but later on in high school. Having two tests shows Georgia where kids are when they first went to high school and where they are closer to the finish,” she said.

In designing standard exams for core high school courses, Georgia sought to show whether the material was being taught to the same level in every district. When Georgia first rolled out the EOC tests, an alarming number of high school honor students struggled to attain passing grades. To give the EOCs more weight, the state required that the scores count for 20% of a student’s final grade.

Some educators fear eliminating end-of-grade exams will result in less attention to the courses.

“Incentives matter and this proposal will drastically change incentives in the classrooms of every single teacher currently teaching a course being assessed with an end-of-course or end-of-grade assessment,” said Mike Raymer, executive director of the Georgia Council on Economic Education and a former Georgia Council Economics Teacher of the Year.

“Everyone in business knows that what gets measured gets managed. Similarly, in education, what is tested is prioritized in terms of professional development opportunities, teacher quality and resources,” said Raymer. “In our resource-limited school systems, can we truly justify de-emphasizing courses that teach basic economic principles and personal financial literacy?”

Georgia’s policies provided students a reason to treat the EOC tests as something that mattered to them by enabling it to act as a final exam, said Hyslop. “The tests we give to students ought to be high quality and aligned to the curriculum you are using. You should be able to explain the reasons for the tests. In the case of the Georgia Milestones EOC assessments, those reasons are in place, and students know why they are taking the tests,” she said.

Woods told me he’s not worried high school classes stripped of EOCs will slip in quality. “I trust our teachers as the highly trained professionals they are, and I know they will continue to offer a high-quality educational experience for their students, whether or not a high-stakes test is assigned to their course,” he said.

Hyslop agrees teachers are capable of creating their own strong classroom exams; indeed, the majority of tests given in Georgia schools are teacher-created. “But when you have different teacher assessments,” she said, “there is not the apples-to-apples comparison that you have with an EOC assessment.”

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