GRADE inflation usually focuses on artificially boosting students' grades, but state lawmakers are upping the ante. Legislation advancing at the Oklahoma Capitol would inflate schools' grades by allowing districts to declare students “proficient” in core subjects — without actually testing them.
Senate Bill 559 would water down graduation standards and A-F grading of schools, two important reforms advanced in recent years. Under current law, Oklahoma high school seniors take seven end-of-instruction exams. To get a diploma, they must pass tests for Algebra I and English II, and then pass two of the remaining five in Algebra II, Biology I, English III, geometry or U.S. history.
Although students must pass only four tests, they're required to take all seven. SB 559, as passed by the state House, would exempt students from taking all seven tests once they've passed four. But the bill's most egregious provision declares that students exempted from taking up to three graduation tests “shall be counted as proficient on those tests for purposes of calculating the grade of the school” in the A-F system.
In other words, if a student is minimally proficient in Algebra I, English II and III, and history, the state will declare him proficient in Algebra II, geometry and biology and give the school a higher score.
In the real world, no one thinks that passing English means a student can also do geometry. There's a big difference between identifying noun-verb agreement and answering questions like, “In the triangle ABC, sides AB and CB have equal lengths and the measure of angle ABC is equal to 36 degrees. What is the measure of angle BOC where O is the center of the circle?”
Then again, most people aren't politicians.
SB 559 and House Bill 1035 also would water down graduation standards by designating many other tests as alternatives to the seven EOI exams, including the ACT Workkeys job skills assessment. The Workkeys' test questions can be quite simple. A paragraph may outline the process for cashiers to handle employee discount purchases, noting the cashier must initial the receipt. The test-taker is then asked, “What should you write on a store employee's receipt?”
Does that really substitute for a subject-specific academic test or truly indicate proficiency in high school coursework?
Last year, roughly 98 percent of Oklahoma's high school seniors passed at least four graduation tests. Only nine of 1,744 school sites got an F. Yet some lawmakers apparently think this is evidence the systems are too stringent. Rep. Dennis Casey, R-Morrison, is the football coach-turned-superintendent-turned-legislator who is House author of both bills.
The legislations' supporters will argue that schools spend too much time testing students, and that it stresses children. But how else can you accurately measure student progress? Furthermore, testing requirements have incentivized improvement. Although graduation exams became mandatory just last year, students have taken them for several years. In 2008, just 54 percent passed the Algebra II exam; 74 percent did last year. The pass rate for geometry surged from 68 percent to 82 percent; for English III it jumped from 75 percent to 85 percent.
Accountability improves performance. Lawmakers should embrace this fact instead of pretending that the ability to pass an English test makes a student a geometry whiz and the child's school a center of excellence.