The Intersection

A Balancing Act: Choosing Fewer and Higher-Quality High School Tests

June 1, 2016


education firstThink back to your days as a high school student. Did you take the SAT or ACT test? Did you take other standardized tests, such as an end-of-course exam or graduation test? Was it more important to know how well you understood the material you learned in your current classes or to know how ready you were for college? Are those the same things?

State leaders should ask these same questions as they prepare for a new era of high school accountability and testing under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—and decide what’s most fair for schools to be accountable for.

To help them, the High-Quality Assessment Project, supported by Education First, has released “Choices and Trade-offs: Key Questions for State Policymakers when Selecting High School Assessments.” Its author Erin O’Hara—a former state data and assessment leader—collected advice from state and national assessment and policy experts to elevate the most important issues state policymakers should consider when choosing high school assessments.

Should states consider different high school assessment options, and what are the trade-offs?

Federal law continues to expect states to test all students in math, English language arts and science at least once in grades 9-12. But ESSA lays out a path for states (or districts) to assess high school students on a state-approved “nationally-recognized state assessment” in place of a state-designed test.

All assessments are designed with a specific purpose in mind. Assessment experts caution that assessments designed for one particular purpose may not be valid for another purpose. In high school, assessments are typically designed either to predict students’ likelihood of success in college—like ACT and SAT—or to assess their knowledge and skills they’ve learned while in high school—like PARCC, Smarter Balanced and other high-quality state summative tests. Most experts believe all four of these tests—even though they measure different things and were designed for different purposes—meet ESSA’s definition for a nationally-developed assessment. But that’s not the same as deciding which tests will best meet your state’s goals.

Going back to your high school experience, you probably weren’t faced with a schedule of testing options like some of today’s students, including ACT/SAT and their “pre” exams, final course exams, state summative tests for student graduation or school accountability, AP, IB, CTE and workforce readiness tests—and if you were, you probably didn’t count testing as the most important part of your education. It’s not fair to make high school students take test after test simply to fit the requirements of state accountability systems, colleges and universities, and other stakeholders. At the same time, state leaders should ensure their menu of assessments provides a clear value for its students, schools and districts.

So, what is fair for students and where is the most value for states? Before state policymakers rush into a decision to cut or replace different high school tests, we advise them to consider these thorny, complicated but really important issues:

  • Are tests like the ACT and SAT useful for students who are headed straight to the workforce?
  • How important is it to measure and report on what students are supposed to be learning before they graduate (based on state standards) as opposed to measuring likelihood of college success?
  • What data will educators, parents and students receive from these tests, and what will they be able to do with the data to improve teaching or to get students extra help?
  • Are accommodations—like enough time to take the test, support for English-language learners, etc.—available to ensure the test is accessible for all students?
  • How can the state ensure that test results are an accurate reflection of student performance (and effective teaching) and are not due to ACT and SAT test prep classes and tutors, which can be out of reach financially for many students (and may skew test results in terms of reporting on high school success)?

There are important trade-offs to different test options. As state policymakers review Erin’s new guide, they should do so with one overarching question in mind: How will any changes in our assessment policies affect all students in our state?

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