gauge such mastery, the response to the shortcomings of minimum competency tests has been to design tests that measure higher-order analytical skills. Although most high school exit exams still measure basic skills, the trend is toward more difficult and sophisticated tests. Some states, including Maryland and New York, are now implementing high school graduation assessments tied to demanding state standards and requiring greater mastery of more complex skills. A few other states, including North Carolina, are moving toward requiring high school students to pass standardized, statewide end-of-course exams in all the subjects—algebra, English, U.S. history, and so on—needed for high school graduation, rather than passing a single exit exam. Some states have postponed implementation of tests carrying high stakes for students until they have put in place systems of accountability for schools and educators.
The close links between education policy and testing are clear. Although standardized tests are merely measurement tools to obtain information about student and school performance, they have come to function also as symbols. So, for example, assessments are often portrayed as synonymous with accountability policies or with high school graduation requirements, even though the imposition of rewards and sanctions constitutes the core of these policies, and the test results merely inform decisions about their allocation.
Precisely because of the tight connection between testing and policy, standards for proper test use are essential. All seven policy uses require that assessments measure student performance consistently across tasks (reliability), that the scores are meaningful and reflect the domains being measured (validity), and that the meaning of the test scores does not differ across individuals, groups, or settings (fairness). These standards are explored in Chapters 4 through 9.
Meeting these standards is both more important and more problematic when a test is used for high-stakes purposes, particularly if it involves consequences for individuals rather than institutions. If students are not afforded the opportunity to learn the content on which they are tested (a growing possibility as curriculum and performance standards are raised), or if tests are not interpreted consistently from one locale to another (as is often the case in decisions about special education placement), then testing can create new inequalities or exacerbate existing ones.
Avoiding this outcome may be difficult, however. Politicians are elected to solve problems, and often that means acting with the tools available under severe time pressures and fiscal and political constraints.