Lessons from Texas

Joe Enge

Recognition is beginning to grow across the country that end-of-course exams are a superior alternative to proficiency tests as a requirement for high school graduation. Texas is the most recent state to phase out proficiencies in favor of the end-of-course approach to measuring student learning and readiness for college.

Historically, the states, including Nevada, have justifiably instituted high-stakes proficiency exams (HSPEs) in mathematics, English and writing as high school graduation requirements to serve as a quality-control measure above and beyond letter grades and credits. This was an accountability reform that resulted in greater effort on the part of many students to acquire long-term skills instead of just putting forth the minimum effort needed to pass their classes.

The initial wave of criticism came from parents of students who did not pass the proficiency tests, as well as from the usual anti-testing critics. But over time, the tests became an accepted requirement.

Then No Child Left Behind came into the picture. While providing greater accountability in public education than had existed before, the HSPEs were shown to have many unintended consequences that were magnified greatly with federal intervention.

The idea behind end-of-course exams is that to get credit, students must pass a specific high-content state exam in English I or Algebra I, for example, rather than the less rigorous, across-the-board HSPE in the 10th or 11th grade. This allows teachers to focus on the specific subject more than he or she currently can, given the broad nature of the proficiency system.

Not only does such an approach deepen content knowledge in high school, it also addresses the problem that the currently non-tested classes get turned into preparatory sessions for the tested areas. Since U.S. history is not currently a tested subject, for example, administrators are tempted to emphasize English in history classes over the actual history content.

HSPEs fall far short in their ability to predict Nevada students’ college success. Students, after multiple runs at the HSPEs, pass the basic tests and have the grades to move into Nevada’s higher education system. Yet the numbers show that an alarming number end up having to take remediation courses. The remediation rates are 46 percent for four-year colleges and 64 percent for two-year colleges.

These unintended consequences are a serious problem, as Texas and Indiana have recently recognized, warranting a complete overhaul of high school testing. Given that Nevada faces the same problems, it’s worth looking at how the issue has been addressed elsewhere.

The governor of Texas this past June signed legislation that phases out the state’s version of HSPEs, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), to be replaced by end-of-course exams. The widespread benefit of such a move was recognized across the political spectrum, as evidenced by the 30-0 vote in the Texas Senate and the 145-0 vote in the Texas House (with one present not voting).

The Texas Senate Research Center offered the following analysis:

“While improving the educational attainment of students, the cumulative Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) testing regime has had unintended consequences. Students are provided with a single avenue to success and may not achieve the level of college readiness they are truly capable of because TAKS tests are generic and shallow in scope. Many teachers do not focus on the richness of the curriculum for a particular subject, instead spending valuable time preparing students for these tests because they are evaluated on their students’ performance on the tests.

“S.B. 1031 phases out the TAKS testing regime at the high school level and replaces it with end-of-course exams in the four core subject areas — English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. These assessments are course-specific, which should influence teachers and students to focus on the subject matter rather than test preparation. …”

Indiana developed a similar program, called Core 40 End-of-Course Assessments, which currently test students in Algebra I and English II. The state is also conducting voluntary pilot test administrations in Algebra II, Biology I and U.S. History.

The trend already has begun to catch on (albeit to a small extent) here in the Silver State. Nevada’s own Douglas County School District has, on its own initiative, incorporated end-of-course exams developed outside the district in world history, U.S. history and government.

The Interim Legislative Committee on Education will meet on Nov. 15 in Carson City to determine the interim legislative studies to be completed for the 2009 Legislative Session. Sound policy dictates that one of the interim education studies selected should analyze the end-of-course exam system and the potential benefits to education in Nevada. 

Joe Enge is education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.