Making the grade: Is high stakes testing a measure of success? Or...

Making the grade: Is high stakes testing a measure of success? Or a roadblock?

Professor Bruce Marlowe

Professor Bruce Marlowe
Professor Bruce Marlowe

The debate over high-stakes testing in general and the validity of the NECAP (New England Common Assesment Program) in particular, has been simmering for some time. We have been hearing educators complain about the necessity of “teaching to the test,” and parents with school-age children have witnessed first-hand the anxiety, administration-driven in the elementary grades, as the NECAP is used more as a measure of the school’s success, than that of the individual student.  But for would-be Rhode Island public school graduates, that has all changed. Now, your success (or lack of) on the NECAP may determine whether you get to move on with your life. Or not.
Beginning with the class of 2014, students must demonstrate proficiency in all areas of the NECAP in order to earn their diplomas. That class, currently 11th graders, recently took what was meant to be the last NECAP of their academic careers. The one that matters. And statewide, some 40% of them flunked math.
The response from administration, impacted students, and the general public has been largely predictable. Schools have redoubled their efforts to get students up to speed with the mostly algebraic NECAP questions. Many unaffected students and members of the community at large, tired of seeing Rhode Island students rank disproportionately low nationally relative to our per-pupil expenditures, welcome stringent graduation requirements. Affected students and parents have cried foul. Their voices were recently bolstered by the Providence Student Union, a youth-led student advocacy organization. On March 16, this group staged an abbreviated version of the math NECAP, administered to several businesspeople, politicians, non-profit directors and other prominent members of the community, to see if they would make the grade under the new NECAP policy. Legitimate question or political theater? That depends on whom you ask.
It’s a question that one adult test-taker, East Providence High School history teacher and State representative Gregg Amore, was not afraid to answer. “I found the math section of the NECAP very challenging. I stuck to the time limits imposed on the students and only had time to answer 11 of the 21 questions, 6 or them correctly. Granted, I would have done a little better had I been less removed from high school algebra class, but the question is, is this test a fair measure of aptitude? As a long-time teacher who has seen many solid students receive poor scores on the NECAP, I do not think it is.”
Rep. Amore points out that one of the key problems with the math curriculum today, and for affected students in particular, is the lack of consistency over the course of their academic development. “These kids are victims of the math wars. We started off teaching them Chicago Math, then we changed to something else. Now it’s a mix of the two. Add to that the fact that the NECAP is a test that is administered to elementary and middle school students. These high school juniors have not seen this test in years—and it has only been in the past two or three years that we have focused on using it as an exit exam,” he says.
For Bruce Marlowe, a professor of Educational Psychology and Special Education at Roger Williams University, NECAP’s flaws are elemental. “It’s like comparing creation science and climate science,” he says. “Each relies on different evidence to make different claims, and uses findings to make decisions based not on the evidence, but on politics. The NECAP was not developed as a testing tool but a ranking tool. It deliberately separates kids in order to create a statistical distribution. If there is a question that most kids are getting right, they change the test and throw that question away. And that is fine if your purpose is to rank kids. There are lots of educational decisions that are made for which that is a very valid tool. But using a test for a purpose other than what it was created for is unethical.”
There are serious unintended consequences to high-stakes tests like the NECAP. Low income students, as those for whom English is not a first language, and those with learning disabilities, overwhelmingly fail to make the grade. The system encourages low-performing students to drop out, so as not to skew the data. “Studies show that family income is the single best predictor of a student’s performance on a high-stakes test such as the NECAP,” Professor Marlowe says. “It determines who remains poor, who struggles, who ends up in the criminal justice system.”
In a statement, RIDE Commissioner Deborah Gist refuted the suggestion that failure on the NECAP would close the path to graduation. “For too long, we have had low expectations for many Rhode Island students….Today, we have set high but reasonable standards for what students need to know and be able to do in order to earn a diploma….We know that about 4,100 students statewide have scored “substantially below proficient” on the mathematics assessment and have not yet met this graduation requirement. They will take the test again in their senior year – twice, if necessary – and they will meet the graduation requirement if they improve their performance. Students also have the option of using the results of another approved assessment to meet this graduation requirement….Rather than arguing about the test, we should pay attention to what the test reveals: Many students lack the skills they need in mathematics. As a lifelong educator, I am confident that, if all of us take this matter seriously, our students can improve their performance and earn a meaningful diploma. That is the message responsible adults should be sending to our educators and to our students.”
Rep. Amore agrees with the Commissioner’s goals, even as he question the NECAP as a testing tool. “I commend Commissioner Gist for wanting to raise standards, and we have already seen the positive impact of increased standards in East Providence. But I am not convinced that the NECAP is the right test for the job,” he says.
Professor Marlowe is likewise clear that Rhode Island is using the wrong test for the job. “I am deeply skeptical, and given what’s at stake, policy-makers should be too.”


  1. Just to clarify: I did NOT say that creation and climate science make claims based on politics as opposed to evidence. Rather, what I said was that Climate Science makes its claims based on data (i.e., research evidence) whereas Creation Science is based on biblical claims. Similarly, those in favor of using the NECAP to deny some kids diplomas seem to have a faith-based attachment to high-stakes tests, as there is no research evidence that using the NECAP in this way is a valid way to proceed. More importantly, there is plenty of evidence that the use of high-stakes tests causes a great number of very serious negative consequences, which I recently outlined in the Providence Journal.

    So to reiterate, quite a bit of what is happening in public education today is a lot like creation science in the sense that decisions are not based on evidence from empirical study; just as creation science is based largely on faith, much of what is being mandated for public school children is based on politics and a sort of propaganda about what makes for good schools rather than on evidence.