NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A Game of Educational Chicken

August 1, 2003

After years of preparation, the dates for implementing high-stakes graduation exams (as embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act) are approaching. Officials have warned that students who fall short won't receive diplomas or, in some cases, promotion to the next grade level. But if thousands of students fail or look as if they might, will authorities blink?

The answer appears to be yes:

  • Last month California postponed implementation of its high-stakes exam for two years.
  • California's 1999 legislation required that 2004's high school seniors pass an exam to graduate, yet as of January about a third of 2004 seniors had not passed the mathematics portion of California's test, and nearly 20 percent hadn't passed the language arts section.

These are students who have supposedly been working to meet standards since before they were in eighth grade.

And California is not alone. Of the states that promised a new regime of accountability, only a handful are on track to meet targets. Many states have made their tests easier. Others have lowered the passing score or delayed phasing them in as a graduation or promotion requirement.

Some worry that this might happen in Maryland, where the State Board of Education has just set standards that more than a third of the students who took math and reading tests this year would have failed.

Testing is never an end in itself but a measure of other factors -- the commitment of teachers and of school districts, the willingness of students to work harder. But while a test can be a tool to inspire and an indicator of progress, it works only as long as education authorities take it seriously.

Source: Editorial, "High-Stakes Game," Washington Post, August 1, 2003.


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