Exhortations to change assessments, whether internal or external, clearly need to focus on more than just item format. In the remainder of this section, we examine current external assessment practices and results.

In recent years, largely because of language in the reauthorization of Title I, many states have designed and implemented their own assessments, usually aligned with newly developed state standards or curriculum frameworks. Many of these assessments are intended to have high stakes. They may have financial or other consequences for districts, schools, teachers, or individual students. In some cases, promotion or even a high school diploma may depend on a student achieving a passing score. As of 1998, 48 states and the District of Columbia had instituted testing programs, typically at grades 4, 8, and 11, and usually in mathematics, language arts, science, and technology.42

Many states report the results of their high-stakes assessments by school or by district to identify places that are most in need of improvement. The states’ responses to those results vary. Some states have the authority to close, take over, or “reconstitute” a failing school. To date, only a few states have ever used such sanctions.43 Florida awards additional funds to schools that perform near the bottom and also to schools that perform near the top.44 When schools or districts with poor results do not show sufficiently rapid improvement, some states revoke accreditation, close down the school, seize control of the school, or grant vouchers so that students may choose to enroll elsewhere.

Currently, 19 states require that in order to graduate from high school, students must pass a mandated assessment, and several other states are phasing in such a requirement.45 In TIMSS, countries with rigorous assessments at the end of secondary education outperformed other countries at a comparable level of economic development; such assessments, however, were probably not the most important determinant of achievement levels.46 In response to calls for an end to social promotion, some states and districts have begun requiring grade-level mastery tests for promotion, typically in grades 4 and 8. Interestingly, there is some evidence to suggest that there is an almost inverse relationship between statewide testing policies and students’ mathematics achievement:

Among the 12 highest-scoring states in 8th grade mathematics in 1996, …none had mandatory statewide testing programs in place during the 1980s or early 1990s. Only two of the top 12 states in the 4th grade mathematics had statewide programs prior to 1995. By contrast, among the 12 lowest-scoring states,…10 had extensive student testing programs in place prior to 1990, some of which were associated

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