Meeting the Challenge of Standardized Testing

May 23, 2013

Students in an English Class at Attleboro High School.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison

As Rhode Island grapples with high school diplomas tied to test scores,  Massachusetts students have faced a similar requirement for a decade. Rhode Island Public Radio's Elisabeth Harrison visited Attleboro High School to find out how high-stakes testing has changed what’s being taught.

Nearly 100 percent of students at Attleboro High School meet standardized test graduation requirements.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

It’s lunchtime at Attleboro High, and students fill a blue and white breezeway. Many chat about their coursework, or the upcoming senior prom, but all of them will have to pass a standardized test known as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, to pass through these halls and on to graduation.

Jean Hickox, Dean of Students at Attleboro High School, congratulates a senior who’s about to graduate. She says today only a handful fail to meet the minimum MCAS score the state requires.

“I dare say numbers, five max,” Hickox says of the number of students who fail to meet the testing requirement. “But usually by senior year there’s 100 percent passing.”

100 percent passing is a significant achievement for a school with nearly 2,000 students, including a growing number of non-native English speakers, a career and technical school plus a small program for at risk students. Hickox says the passing rate wasn’t always this good.

“It used to be oh probably a quarter of the kids that had to retest, now we’re down to much, much lower than that each time.”

Over the last ten years, Attleboro High School has reduced the number of students who need to retake the state test by combing their results to identify weak spots in the curriculum. For the students who still don’t pass, there are special classes and some get individual tutoring. Even in regular classes Hickox says many teachers now integrate test questions into their lesson plans.

“As previous tests released different test questions, you might see a lot of teachers opening up as a bell-ringer or a warm-up using a previous test question just to get kids thinking about it,” Hickox explains. “But more it speaks to the everyday rigor, and the high expectations of what we’re demanding of the students more and more."

In a 10th grade English class, students sit, heads bent over desks reviewing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with teacher Erin Matthews. "A little light reading," she jokes.

But Attleboro High School is serious about getting students to pass the MCAS. One of the ways they’ve done this is by focusing on the five-paragraph essay, which is at the heart of the Massachusetts English Language Arts test.

Massachusetts students first take the MCAS at the end of 10th grade. That’s different than how it’s done in Rhode Island, where students take the state test at the beginning of the 11th grade. There some other differences too, for example, Rhode Island students take the tests during a short window, while Massachusetts spreads it out.

Watching this Attleboro class, Dean of Students Jean Hickox says she does believe the school has raised expectations because of the testing requirement, but she also has concerns about all of the testing today’s students undergo. She notes that many take MCAS, the PSAT, the SAT and multiple AP exams.

“So these poor kids are going from an SAT which is timed and bubble and paper and pencil and then they have their MCAS which is not officially timed, where they’re writing full essays and then AP is sort of a combination, and AP’s got so much riding on it for some kids,” Hickox says, “that I think we’re over testing.”

Concerns about over-testing are one reason many opponents are fighting test scores as a graduation requirement in Rhode Island, and similar arguments were made 10 years ago in Massachusetts. Even now opponents of the Massachusetts policy argue that all this testing stresses out students, and Attleboro High School Principal Bill Runey admits that’s an issue.

“They’re high school students so they get anxious about what they’re going to wear to school that day,” Runey says. “And so you put a test in front of them that’s going to affect graduation, it’s understandable they get worked up.”

Massachusetts schools actually have a special position called an adjustment counselor, and no, it’s not related to a bad back or insurance. An adjustment counselor helps students handle stress and other issues that might get in the way of academics.

But from Principal Runey’s perspective, the stress is not all bad. He sees it as part of preparing students for the real world.

“Whether it’s my job, your job, or their parent’s jobs, there are certain times where we have to step up to the plate, and it’s not that different from testing,” says Runey. “We don’t want kids to have anxiety about coming to school and things like that, but I also think a little bit of push is not the worst thing in the world.”

A little push can be a good thing, but the question is whether some students get pushed out the door. A study in California and another study in Massachusetts suggest that at least in the first years of a new testing requirement, some students were discouraged from graduating.

“We see these effects as unintended consequences of the testing policy,” says John Papay, an education professor at Brown University, who studied the difference between students who barely passed the MCAS and students who barely failed it. He found that for urban, low income students, barely failing the test reduced their probability of graduating by at least 8 percentage points

“That was a fairly large effect,” Papay says. “We’re just comparing these kids on the margin, and reducing their likelihood of graduation by 8 percentage points is a pretty big effect on these students.”

According to Papay, it’s hard to know what’s behind this gap in graduation rates. It may be that students who barely failed the MCAS were discouraged and left school, or maybe students who barely passed were so happy they stayed in school when they might have otherwise dropped out. What is clear, however, is that testing as a graduation requirement poses a bigger challenge for urban schools than suburban ones.

“Both urban, low income students and suburban students were equally likely to re-take the test. but urban low income students did much worse on that re-test,” Papay notes. “We can’t get inside the black box of this a lot, but I think the policy implication seems to be that schools need to find ways to support these students who fail, and our sense is that these suburban schools are finding ways to support these students who fail and that the urban schools are struggling to do that.”

Attleboro High School is mainly a suburban school, and its performance on the MCAS appears to match Papay’s data. A decade after Massachusetts instituted testing as a graduation requirement, most students are passing and both students and teachers seem to have accepted the test as part of earning a high school degree.

Overall, Massachusetts graduation rates have improved since the policy took effect, and the state is known for having some of the highest scores on national testing in the country. But it’s not clear whether the testing graduation requirement is behind these good results

The testing requirement still has critics, including the Boston Teachers Union, whose leaders say it has forced urban schools to spend large amounts of time on tested subjects like Math and English. That leaves less room for electives and the arts, which many people feel are equally important.