Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Lack of Data for Proper Assessment

Can schools predict student success based only on 'exit exams'?

Consider the case of California, where passing scores in exit exams for basic math and English proficiency are now mandatory before a high school diploma can be issued. Exit exam requirements are intended to give employers, students, parents and the public assurance that a diploma signifies that students have the knowledge and skills to succeed after high school. The tests now in use measure proficiency at 8th grade level, which most students achieve even before entering high school.

Crunch time is coming for the first batch subject to this requirement. So far, about 90 percent of California's incoming seniors (the last year before graduation) have already passed at least one test. While the state knows that the remaining 10 percent still need to pass at least one of the critical exams, that don't have precise data. Says one article: "Because the state doesn't have individual student data, it can't precisely gauge how many students have passed both tests. Conversely, it can't tell how many of the seniors who haven't passed the English test are the same students who have failed the math test."

Thus the 10% figure understates the number of students who still must pass at least one portion of the exam to get a diploma - and they only have one year in which to achieve it. This lack of data is appalling, and highlights the need for continuous assessment in schools. Continuous assessment will provide better data to school administrators and will help teachers intervene earlier to help struggling students.

Statewide there is a wide disparity in pass rates by race and ethnicity, a phenomenon known in education circles as the 'achievement gap'. The biggest challenge for districts which have large immigrant populations, such as those in Southern California, will be helping English learners pass the test. Only 58 percent of incoming seniors who don't speak English fluently have passed the English test and only 70 percent have passed the math test.

Exit exams can identify whether students are minimally proficient, but by the time results are out - it's already too late. Also, the level of proficiency tested is that which students should have attained before entering high school, so the four years spent in high school classes are not optimally utilized.

California schools need to implement continuous assessment, not snapshots.