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Social Promotion and High Stakes Tests

The mayor has announced that he is expanding his plan for ending social promotion. The problem with that plan isn’t the goal, but rather the means by which to reach it: by relying (can you guess?) on how well the student does on state exams. Over-reliance on test scores for high stakes decisions is never a good idea, but relying on them for decisions about social promotion seems especially ill-advised. Students must attain a Level 2 to be promoted, but as the Daily News pointed out students can reach that standard just by guessing. And, on Thursday, Diane Ravitch had this to say:

In 2006, third-grade students had to get 43.6 percent of the points on the math test to earn a Level 2 — but by 2009, they needed to get only 28.2 percent of the points. On the English language-arts test, the cutoff to earn a Level 2 in sixth grade dropped from 41 percent of the points in 2006 to just 17.9 percent in 2009.

… In grades three through eight, the number of New York City students who scored at Level 1 in math fell by an astonishing 80 percent in only three years.

… Some of the city’s lowest-performing schools have few or no Level 1 students because the state lowered the bar.

Lower standards on state exams are not the mayor’s fault; nor are they Joel Klein’s. Rather they are what happens when two tests go high stakes to the virtual exclusion of all other indicators, as has been the case under NCLB.

But even if initial blame lies with NCLB, the city compounds it by basing its own high stakes decisions (in this case student promotion) almost exclusively on tests. Ultimately, the city undermines the very goal it seeks to achieve: higher standards. In fact, anecdotally, teachers have often told me that under this system more students wind up inappropriately promoted than ever before. After all, though it may be technically possible to retain a student who has achieved a Level 2, in practical terms it is very, very difficult. How can a teacher make an effective argument for retaining a child whose educational level has the official sanction of the city, as attested to by an official state exam?

In the Daily News article, state spokesman Tom Dunn said, “Our exams were not designed to determine whether students were ready for promotion.” Exactly so. And I would add that decisions about promotion must be based upon a broad spectrum of knowledge about a student’s academic abilities that cannot be wholly captured by a test.