High-Stakes Assessment: A Comparison

          To further understand the implications of high stakes testing in schools, I’ve looked at two different high schools. One is a school with innovation status in the Aurora Public Schools, which lies east of Denver, CO, almost at the Denver International Airport. The other school is an alternative high school in Turlock, CA that caters to students experiencing difficulties in the traditional public high school. Both schools boast minority students as the majority of the school population and both schools lie in traditionally “underperforming” areas. Both of these schools are working in innovative ways to try and give these students the best education they need, including a strong focus on graduation.

            For my comparison of the role of high stakes testing in these two schools, I’m going to use some observations from the Turlock school that are outdated. In recent years California has withdrawn its California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and currently students are not required to take an exit exam style test. I will focus on the years before this withdrawal to paint a more vivid contrast between the states and the schools, although I will comment on the changes.

            In the Aurora high school students spend anywhere from 14.5 hours (freshmen) to no hours in testing (seniors). The tests they are required to take include the CMAS in Science and Social studies in their junior year. The Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS): Science and Social Studies is Colorado’s standards-based assessment designed to measure the Colorado Academic Standards (CAS) in the content areas of science and social studies. During freshman year they take the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests in language arts and math as well as the ACT Aspire.

The ACT Aspire consists of periodic assessments that are short (45 minutes or less per subject per test) and are designed to produce snapshots of each learner’s achievement at intervals throughout the academic year. The Aurora Public Schools indicates they are

ideal for acknowledging that a learner’s progress is at pace for success with the Summative assessment at the conclusion of the year. Conversely, they are equally ideal for identifying that a learner may require critical, corrective re-teaching to develop the essential skills that will be measured by a Summative assessment.

(See http://assessment.aurorak12.org/assessment-and-resources/)

Colorado does not have a high school exit exam, but rather juniors usually take either the ACT or SAT at school as a final, summative assessment of their knowledge. This was especially useful when I was at Boulder High in CO since it meant I did not have to pay for the ACT, but was able to report the scores to colleges.

            The high school in Turlock is currently tested about three days a year, but in the years where the CAHSEE existed, they were tested for six full days. The alternative high school contains only juniors and seniors, so there is no direct comparison for freshman and sophomore testing.

            In terms of teaching the test content, the high school in Aurora does not have any specific teaching requirements to include testing material, but teachers often include questions of a similar style to those found on the SAT, ACT, ACT Aspire, CMAS and PARCC tests. Other testing included on campus includes several AP classes. In the case of these classes the entire course content is tailored to the test. Colorado has been playing around with its state tests and changed its testing regimen in 2014-2015 as well as beginning PARCC testing in ~2014. The state is still adjusting to the new tests and the legislature has decided:

Beginning with the 2015-16 school year, local boards may use statewide assessment results in educator evaluations in two ways: First, to use the results in evaluations in the same year that the assessment was administered, the results must be available at least two weeks prior to the last class day of the school year. Second, districts may use the results from the prior assessment year (except for 2014/15) in educator evaluations. When districts use prior year results, it means that state assessment results are the “first data point in” to an educator’s evaluation at the beginning of the year, rather than the “last data point in” at the end of the year.

(See http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdedepcom/educatoreffectivenesschanges)

            While this excerpt seems to indicate that the legislature believes test scores should be used in teacher evaluations, the high school in Aurora, CO does not have any teachers whose evaluations are linked to high stakes testing. In that same vein, no rewards are given to teachers either whose students perform well on the exams. In California the same is true for the alternative high school, especially since students are only in the school for two years (ideally), so there is little reason to link student performance to teacher skill considering the short amount of time.

            Students in the Aurora, CO do not receive any recognition for their scores on exams. Indeed, the school population as whole does not care much about the testing process. In Colorado the movement to opt out of testing with parental approval is large and more often than not the large state tests have a very poor representation of the student population participating. The tests the students do care about are the ACT and SAT, which they understand are high stakes because these tests determine the types of colleges students can apply for (this is a whole other can of worms). In contrast the school in Turlock gives students extra credit (0.5 credits) in any subject they score proficiently in. It’s not a lot of recognition, but it is enough to have the students more invested in the tests than the students in Colorado.

            As stated before, Colorado does not have a high school exit exam and has not had one as far as I know (dating back to the 1960’s when my mother was in school in this state). Up until recently California had the CAHSEE, which put a lot of pressure on students to perform, especially the struggling students that end up in the alternative high school in Turlock, CA. A teacher at this school writes:

So many of my hard working and capable students, young adults who wanted to move on with their lives, were stalled so much in their lives by this test. They had to come back at every testing opportunity for YEARS to finally pass it, taking time off of work and absorbing the lost income to be tested over and over again.

This pressure leaked over the classroom as well, where teachers spent entire days using state-prepared test preparation material as mandated by school administrators. The test preparation material was time consuming and ultimately pointless since it did not help students develop the skills needed on the test, but rather had them try and memorize formatting and answer types. The stakes were incredibly high, students had to pass to get a diploma, and teachers had to expend so much extra time to accommodate the tests and the required test prep period (six straight days of class time).

            Thinking about the experiences of teachers and students at these two different schools, in two very different states, I find myself preferring the Colorado school (good thing since that’s where I’m student teaching). While Colorado believes in testing, the lack of a high school exit exam makes a big difference. In addition, since students are not incentivized to take the CMAS and PARCC exams, many students avoid these exams by opting out. Indeed, the entire climate of the state is against testing despite some desires to tie teacher accountability to student test scores. Even in the capitol city, Denver, which Aurora sits beside, testing is still not the focus of the educational environment and it seemly unlikely Colorado will ever develop an exit exam or fully tie teacher evaluations to student testing. I may be wrong, but I hope that Colorado continues to develop innovative school that are not defined by testing, but rather by the quality of the students they produce. After all, I firmly believe testing is not tied in any appreciable way to intelligence or ability. I’ve known plenty of amazing people that just didn’t perform well on these high-stakes exams but have gone on to be inspiring citizens and leaders in their communities.