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Bruno: Exit Exams Are For Students, Not Adults

5843577306_06fd6132f7The Providence Student Union is organizing an anti-high-stakes-testing protest in which adults take a test similar to the one required of students in Rhode Island to graduate high school. This isn't the first time this sort of publicity stunt has been performed, but since it's in the news it's worth remembering that the underlying logic of the protest is totally confused.

The rationale behind the protest isn't always clearly articulated, but the main assumption seems to be that if "accomplished" adults struggle with a test, it's unreasonable or unfair to expect much younger students to complete it successfully.

The problem with that line of thinking is that many adults are well out of school and have long since taken academic and career paths that happen not to involve the specific knowledge covered by the test.

Supporters of this protest might respond by arguing that if many adults aren't using the content covered by the test, we shouldn't be including it in a high-stakes testing situation for kids. This response, however, misses the point of the tests.

If high school exit exams make sense, it is not because the content covered by the test must necessarily be important for all - or even most - future adults.

Rather, the point is that a certain level of proficiency is important for the students themselves at the time they take the test because academic unpreparedness at that age closes off meaningful educational and employment options in the future. Skills may atrophy after students have chosen their respective paths into adulthood, but if the skills are never developed in school those choices will not be available to begin with.

In other words, the substance of the protest only makes sense if you assume that school should only teach content that all students will definitely use on a regular basis once they finish their educations. It is unlikely that many of the protesters would accept that sort of curriculum-narrowing premise in other contexts. 

There are many perfectly good reasons to be skeptical about withholding a diploma from a student because of poor performance on an exit exam. The fact that many adults would struggle on such a test isn't one of those reasons. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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Thanks for writing this. I took the GRE exam five years out of high school (having taken no math classes in college). There was so much I didn't remember -- even basic things like the formula for calculating the area of a circle. I had to spend quite a bit of time doing an independent "refresher" course. The knowledge was all there buried in my brain, but it definitely took practice and study to bring it to the surface. And I ended up scoring extremely well -- not because of "test prep" but because I actually re-mastered the content.

I imagine that many of the adults who took these exams were more than 5 years out of high school, but the students who would be expected to take the tests just completed the relevant coursework. I suspect those adults would struggle equally with teacher-created exams or even project-based assessments in long-forgotten subjects. Should we should let our students graduate without any evidence that they've met course expectations because some adults long out of school have forgotten subject matter they haven't needed to apply in their adult work?

@Lynn - "I suspect those adults would struggle equally with teacher-created exams or even project-based assessments in long-forgotten subjects."

That's a good point. Should we also make adults "take the portfolio-based assessment"?

I do want to emphasize, though, that I have very serious misgivings about withholding diplomas from students on the basis of an exit exam. The cost of not having a diploma for a young adult can be quite substantial, so it's not at all obvious to me that refusing to give them one in the hopes that that will make them try harder (or something) is what's best for them.

I agree that, ideally, we shouldn't let students graduate without evidence that they've met minimum proficiency standards. I'm just not sold on exit exams as a worthwhile way to do that.

What if I told you Paul that *this particular test* is completely out of whack for a graduation requirement? That in a top five state by just about any measure of math achievement over a third of students would not be eligible for graduation based on the test?

How would you decide for yourself if I was talking nonsense or had a valid point?

You should probably try some of the questions yourself and judge!

That's what we did.

@Tom - I'd actually be curious to try out the items if you've got a link to the released questions. (Ideally organized in an easy-to-take-and-grade format.)

But, again, my point is that how I do on the test is irrelevant. The test is not intended to assess me (or any other particular adult). It's intended to assess high school students. Since I am not a high school student, my score on the test couldn't possibly be relevant.

And I really don't mean to suggest that every - or any particular - exit exam is a good idea. I'm somewhat skeptical of exit exams for other reasons. The "some adults find it difficult" reason just isn't a good one.

I really don't know enough about this test, just as an observer. I also understand the desire to have some way to insure everyone received a top notch education through an exit assessment. My question is whether the test takes into consideration the various levels of learning that occur in the schools? Are remedial level courses preparing students for a test that may be a level or two above. I am not trying to imply that all students shouldn't aim for the stars and be pushed to higher expectations. I am simply asking what about those students who have a difficult time with some content? How about ESL? Is that a consideration? It will help me better understand this test. Thank you for any insight you provide. I have a strong desire to learn more about this test and any other type of assessment. To be sure, my tone is intended to be inquisitive. I reread it and I am not sure that is obvious. Thanks again!

http://www.ride.ri.gov/assessment/necap_materials.aspx

I don't think you're giving the people participating in the mock test enough credit. Graduation requirements are something adults should be able to wrap their heads around, and it is easy to imagine a math test that those adults might have failed while seeing that they were just a little rusty, but it would be reasonable for a 11th grader. The NECAP goes a bit beyond that.

It is a good test in many ways, just not for this purpose.

If the test is tied to standards and the standards are tied to career-readiness (ie, what it takes to be a successful adult), shouldn't already successful adults who clearly embody those standards be able to show some success on the test?

Or are the tests not at all connected to career-readiness? In which case, why are we giving them?

Your argument seems to be that the test is designed to measure things these kids are supposed to forget by the time they become adults. Therefore, adults can't be expected to do well on them.

I think the idea of valuing the testing transitory knowledge is sketchy.

@John - There is a difference between "supposed to forget" and "may forget depending on the path they choose to follow".

What about my first question? If the test is a test over curriculum designed to develop career- and college-skills, doesn't it follow that college-educated, career-leading adults should do reasonably well on them? Time away from the classroom is a good rationale only if these tests are strictly a test of classroom-related skills and knowledge. But, at least with STAAR here in Texas, are sold as tests of career-readiness. Are you career-ready? This test will tell us.

If professionals can't pass the tests, then either these CEOs and legislators aren't career-ready or the tests don't really measure career-readiness.

@John - That point was already addressed in the original post. As I said:

"Supporters of this protest might respond by arguing that if many adults aren't using the content covered by the test, we shouldn't be including it in a high-stakes testing situation for kids. This response, however, misses the point of the tests.

If high school exit exams make sense, it is not because the content covered by the test must necessarily be important for all - or even most - future adults.

Rather, the point is that a certain level of proficiency is important for the students themselves at the time they take the test because academic unpreparedness at that age closes off meaningful educational and employment options in the future. Skills may atrophy after students have chosen their respective paths into adulthood, but if the skills are never developed in school those choices will not be available to begin with."

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