State & National Examinations Research Paper Starter

State & National Examinations

(Research Starters)

This article focuses on state placement and achievement examinations in the public school system. It discusses the ways the No Child Left behind Act of 2001 has affected school districts and their testing procedures in all states. Arguments for and against the "No Child Left behind Act" are detailed. High school exit exams and college entrance and placement exams and their ramifications are also covered.

Keywords Adequate Yearly Progress; Advanced Placement; College Entrance Exams; Educational Assessment; Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); Exit Exams; High School Exit Exams; High-Stakes Testing; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; Placement Exams; Standardized Testing


The United States does not have a national curriculum or mandatory national testing of any type to assess the knowledge and skills students have attained in grade school and high school. Federal legislation can help direct some standards; but most authority over what is taught lies with local school districts and the states themselves, and these entities rely on tests as their primary assessment tool. “During the 1970s, many states introduced minimum competency testing requirements for high school graduation or grade-to-grade promotion”; and in the 1980s, states began implementing statewide testing programs (Linn, 2005, p. 80). Many states used standardized testing to assess their students; others contracted with test makers to develop tests intended to better match their state curriculum guidelines. In the 1990s, states began to veer from these standards and look toward assessing higher-level skills and reporting success as the percentage of students at or above proficiency (Linn, 2005).

This is not to say that there is no federal oversight. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was the first federal education law that provided monetary funds for kindergarten through twelfth grade. The funds were authorized for educator improvements, teaching materials, resources to support instructional programs, and promoting parental relationships ("Elementary and Secondary Education," n.d.). The most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is called the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This most recent reauthorization's “goal is to raise instructional standards by requiring states to set challenging expectations for what students should know and to be able to demonstrate that knowledge” (Toch, 2006, p. 54). No Child Left Behind has added new requirements and mandatory testing and federal reporting with potentially grave consequences for those states and districts that are not showing adequate progress, making testing a high-stakes proposition in a world where students' test scores can be different on any given day for reasons that have nothing to do with what they have actually learned.

High-Stakes Testing -- No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

The No Child Left Behind Act “requires the assessment of students in mathematics and reading/English language arts in grades three through eight and assessment of students in mathematics and reading/English language arts in one high school grade by the 2005-2006 school year” (Linn, 2005, p. 81). By the 2007-2008 school year, states will also have to assess their students in science-at least once in grades three through five, once in grades six through nine, and once in grades ten through twelve. No Child Left Behind also stipulates that states are “to set challenging academic content standards and that the assessments must be aligned with the state's content standards” (Linn, 2005, p. 81). The act, however, does not define content standards, set the performance standards for each state, or detail the type of assessments and cutoff scores that should be used, leaving these determinations up to each individual state. Each state is also allowed to set the minimum number of students needed for reporting results for subgroups to determine whether a school or district has made adequate yearly progress. Previously, the Educate America Act of 1994 and the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 “called for performance standards that were intended to specify the level of student achievement that would be considered proficient” (Linn, 2005, p. 81). No Child Left Behind goes further and lists what states need to use to set their annual measurable objectives that are set on the percentage of students that function and succeed at or above proficiency. These standards are what are used to determine if schools, districts, and states make annual yearly progress, and the progress targets are set to match all children at the proficient level or higher by the year 2014. If the percentage of students passing state tests is insufficient, schools have not made adequate yearly progress. Sanctions are “imposed on schools not meeting their annual yearly progress two years in a row; and the consequences are increasingly severe for schools not meeting targets for a third, fourth, and fifth year in a row” and include allowing students to transfer to other schools, replacing school staff, having the state take over the school, and loss of federal funding (Linn, 2005, p. 91).

Some positive aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act are that schools are trying to align curriculum and instruction with their state's academic standards and assessments. Schools can use the test data to target instruction to meet their students' needs, and districts are serious about assuring their teachers are using effective practices in their schools and following best practices ("From the Capital," 2006). The increased testing has the potential to help improve schools. The American Federation of Teachers reviewed reading, mathematics, and science standards and assessments in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and found that a majority of states (31) now have detailed, specific grade-by-grade content standards in all three No Child Left Behind subject areas (Azzam, Perkins-Gough & Thiers, 2006). No Child Left Behind also focuses on having high-quality teachers in every school, which can also help improve school districts and students' learning.

There are many concerns regarding potential consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act. Among them are political conspiracy and corruption of the exam settings and methods and test results. In 2004-2005 “there was evidence of testing fraud by administrators and teachers in order to show adequate yearly progress” (Petress, 2006, p. 1). This evidence included fabricated “results, changing of test pages and inappropriate prompting of students during test taking by teachers. School administrators making (and in many cases being enabled by state and federal rules) decisions as to what constitutes student dropouts, failure, and exemptions from the testing” to manipulate their schools' success rates (Petress, 2006, p. 1). According to a May 7, 2005 CNN special on high-risk testing, one school district held back 40 percent of its third grade students so that the students would not have to implement the important fourth grade achievement test. Some students, however, must be held back more than one year despite the fact that they achieved high classroom marks throughout the year (as cited in Petress, 2006). Because schools often teach only that which is tested - even more so when the stakes are so high - the content of the exams required by No Child Left Behind are the focus of the curriculum at the expense of other subjects, and many people assert that other subjects such as social studies, art, music, and foreign languages are being cut back or even eliminated in favor of reading and mathematics. The Center on Educational Policy found that since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, 71 percent of the nation's school districts had narrowed their curriculum or reduced teaching time in one subject in order to focus more on reading and math (Azzam et al., 2006).

Certain provisions of No Child Left Behind “may make states more cautious about adopting exit exams or setting high pass scores since it requires school districts to demonstrate they are making adequate yearly progress toward the state's student achievement goals. Graduation rates are one of the indicators that states use to determine whether adequate yearly progress is being made” (Chudowsky, Kober, Gayler & Hamilon, 2002, ¶ 2). This could serve as a detriment to introducing a new exit exam if there is fear that implementing a new exit exam or changing requirements could bring down graduation rates (Chudowsky, Kober, Gayler & Hamilon, 2002). Also, “many states have adopted tests that can be constructed quickly and inexpensively. These tests primarily measure low-level skills such as recall and restatement” of fact and ignore higher-level competencies (Toch, 2006, p. 54). A survey by the Public Agenda group reports teachers expressed concern about the No Child Left Behind's implementation with 71 percent saying that students in their schools take too many standardized tests. A minority of school administrators and principals surveyed (44 percent and 42 percent, respectively) think that No Child Left Behind will eventually raise standards and student achievement, and 17 percent of the superintendents and 23 percent of the principals also thought that the law will lead to schools lowering standards so they can more easily show student progress (Azzam et al., 2006).

There are also reasons why students may not do well on any given test day: They could...

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