Pass or Fail: Why High-Stakes Tests for Retention Decisions Fails

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

As an education community, do we put too much stock in standardized testing? In other words – are we unfairly retaining students based on a testing system that is flawed?

High-stakes tests in retention decisions have added another layer of controversy to the debate over retention. Test-based retention is itself an educationally beneficial placement, which we have coupled with the issue of whether chosen tests validate inferences concerning student knowledge and educationally beneficial placements. As we said above, most of the time, the inferences are not valid at all.

In the wealth of academic research on this particular subject, we find Penfield discussing the extent to which research has confirmed test-based grade retention as a particularly problematic approach to education. Teachers initiate the majority of retention decisions, but an increasing number of states and districts have taken to using high-stakes tests to make retention decisions.

To be specific, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana are among the states that retain children in gateway grades primarily based on standardized test performance. Several large school districts, including New York and Chicago, also employ standardized tests as key criteria for grade retention decisions.

Common Core Standards are heavily reliant on assessments to achieve their aims. As most educators and parents are already aware, the principle objective of the Common Core Standards is to provide “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.”

The Common Core Standards seek to make every child learn at the same pace, with teachers and parents roped into the process of standardizing the learning experience. Kindergarteners must learn one set of things to advance to first grade. First graders must learn another set of things, and so on, all the way through the system.

Because they are intended to be nationwide, Common Cores lead to assessments that are as standardized as possible. Students must submit to testing with even more regularity than they have in the past, and must demonstrate, in these test scenarios, that they have acquired all of the standards for knowledge and skill that the Core demanded of them.

Numerous factors appear to influence the validity of assessments, including the opportunities that students have had to learn the content of the test, whether the test measures the intended constructs, whether the test leads to the intended educational goals, whether the scores are reflective of high-quality instructions, and whether the test has afforded students sufficient opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and achievements.

The American Educational Research Association (AERA), the American Psychological Association (APA), and the National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME) make up much of the standards for fair and appropriate tests. These standards also play a central role in determining the appropriate use of tests, but the reality falls far short of their supposed ideal parameters.

The use of tests in making retention decisions is complicated by the disproportional impact that test-based retention policies have on historically disadvantaged groups, including ethnic minority groups, racial minority groups, and English language learners. Numerous studies indicate that large achievement gaps exist between the majority and protected student populations.

These gaps point to the possibility that students of protected populations are in jeopardy for displaying disproportionately low passing rates on tests used to make retention decisions. Recent reports have pointed to disproportionately high retention rates for students in Florida and Texas, which have high proportions of minorities among their students. Penfield also questions the validity of test scores obtained from high-stakes tests, which don’t appear supported for all protected populations.

Penfield’s research alone seems grounds to take a long, hard look at assessments and how we use them when it comes to promoting or retaining students. If there is a big gap between the types of groups of students who pass assessments and fail them, then it seems fair to assess the assessments themselves.

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