We’re at it again! RI education policy and decision makers are dangerously close to following more national trends of damaging educational policy and practice. Tomorrow evening (1/25 @ 5pm), at the Providence Career and Technical Academy (91 Fricker St), the RI Board of Regents will hold its third public hearing regarding proposed changes to the High School Regulations in RI. I want to comment on three areas of concern regarding the proposed changes: testing, tiers, and timing.
First, testing. The proposed regulations place undue emphasis on testing. Namely, they will make worse an educational environment that is increasingly test-obsessed. There is no research of which I am aware indicating that the past decade’s testing craze in particular has done anything to improve real educational outcomes for students or helped to correct the inequities that plague our education system. In fact, in places like New York City, where education officials focused millions of dollars on raising student scores, recent research has shown that reported increases were manipulated and invalid, masking the reality of questionable improvement in educational outcomes. In short, an intense and incessant focus on testing is at best unhelpful and at worst detrimental to the education of our youth.
Additionally, education policy makers continue to ignore the conventional wisdom and scientifically grounded recommendations with regard to the appropriate use of standardized tests. Educational measurement and testing experts will tell you that tests provide important, but limited information about student learning. In a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan from the National Academy of Sciences’ Board of Testing and Assessment, we are reminded that, “The items on any test are a sample from some larger universe of knowledge and skills, and scores for individual students are affected by the particular questions included. A student may have done better or worse on a different sample of questions. In addition, guessing, motivation, momentary distractions, and other factors introduce uncertainty into individual scores.”
In other words, standardized tests provide us with imperfect and imprecise measurements of individual student learning, and thus should not be used as single or primary factors when making important educational decisions about individual students. In fact, our very own guide to using the NECAP clearly states that, “NECAP is only one indicator of student performance and should not be used…for making promotion and/or graduation decisions” (Guide to Using the 2009 NECAP Reports, pg. 9). The NECAP was developed to provide us with validated measures of school, district, and state-level progress toward grade level and grade span expectations, not precise measurements of individual student outcomes.
The “Code of Professional Responsibilities in Educational Measurement,” developed by the National Council on Measurement in Education and included in the same NECAP Guide, and to which RIDE claims adherence, states that we “have important professional responsibilities to make sure that assessments are appropriate for their intended use.” I understand that students will still be required to complete coursework and performance based assessments to graduate. But the proposed changes remove a system in which these components along with NECAP scores contribute to an overall composite measure of student achievement, and replace it with a system where each component stands as its own, independent measure. These changes effectively turn the NECAP into a high stakes exam, which as a single measure could deny students a high school diploma. Currently we do not have statewide tests that were conceived of or designed to be graduation exams, and to use tests like the NECAP in this manner is scientifically unreliable and ethically irresponsible.
Second, tiers. The proposed regulations would establish a system of differentiated diplomas, creating a tiered graduation system for the state of RI. On top of the fact that these tiers seem to rely heavily on NECAP test results, which we already know are imprecise, I am confused as to the utility of such a system. What does a tiered diploma system accomplish? I cannot think of any useful outcome from such a system.
It seems to me that the RIDE should be concerned with setting the minimum standards and requirements for earning a high school diploma in RI, and not concerned with drawing distinctions between different groups of students both within and across local communities. One thing that our society is already very good at is sorting, categorizing, and differentiating people into groups, and then doling out disparate treatment. Colleges do this based on SAT scores and HS transcripts; employers do it based on their judgments of college prestige or assumptions about ones personal background. I cannot imagine what we gain as a system by adding to the mix yet another way of sorting, categorizing, and labeling young people.
If this is a backdoor attempt to differentiate what some Regents might see as watered down diplomas from other more legitimate ones, then consider this alternative: one diploma for one equitable system. Instead of working hard to delineate the high achievers from those who have struggled more in high school, work hard to put resources in place to assist those who struggle and make policies that champion their right to an equitable, high quality education. Why cater to those who are already privileged and who have already achieved highly? Their rewards are coming soon in the form of prestigious college acceptance letters, merit-based scholarships, and more. We all know that we live in a society that provides disparate opportunities and support to different groups of young people. Why exacerbate these disparities both across the state and within local districts by codifying them through a tiered diploma system? In the end, such a system will serve no purpose worth serving. If we truly believe that all people can learn, then let’s put our money where our mouth is and support struggling students, schools, and districts with the resources they need to excel.
Third, timing. If nothing else is done to overhaul the proposed changes to the HS regulations, there is a serious issue of timing with which to contend. As currently written, the proposed changes would go into effect for the Class of 2012, or current juniors in high school. This seems wholly unfair to both students and districts. (Side note: RIDE’s first statement in the FAQ section of the proposed changes says that next year’s graduates will face no new graduation requirements. This just isn’t true. The new regs clearly remove the following language: “state assessments shall not be the sole grounds to prohibit graduation from high school,” effectively making a minimum score on the NECAP an absolute requirement, thus changing the graduation requirements for next year’s seniors!)
Most fundamentally, the current juniors have already taken their NECAP tests without the knowledge that the results could so negatively impact their chances at graduating. To change the rules for these students now would be in violation of the Code of Professional Responsibilities in Educational Measurement, which clearly state: “Persons who prepare others for and those who administer assessments have a professional responsibility to inform the examinees about the assessment prior to its administration, including its purposes, uses, and consequences.”
Furthermore, as districts will not receive NECAP results until at least next month and official word about any new HS regulations until after that, these changes would place undue burden upon district officials, school administrators, and teachers to readjust their graduation and diploma expectations for soon-to-be seniors in a matter of months. At the very least, any approved changes that directly impact students and their graduation or diploma status should not go into effect until at least 2013 so that everyone involved has a minimal amount of time to make the appropriate educational adjustments.
I understand that most educators and policymakers actually, in our own ways, act in what we believe to be students’ best interests. I implore everyone who has the power to affect changes to the HS regulations in RI to keep the faces and lives of individual students who will be impacted at the front of their minds and in the center of their hearts as they make their decisions on this and all important educational policy matters.