School Board Member Who Took State High School Exam: Tests Lack Accountability

To take state standardized exams to the test, a Florida school board member sat down to take a version of the state's high-stakes 10th grade math and reading exams. What he discovered horrified him.

His scores: 62 percent on the reading exam and about 17 percent on math. The reading score equates to a "D" letter grade, and would have placed him in mandatory remedial reading courses. He said the correct answers on the math exams were all lucky guesses.

An initial post by veteran teacher and curriculum writer Marion Brady on The Washington Post's "The Answer Sheet" blog left the board member anonymous, but The Post's Valerie Strauss revealed this week through an interview that the board representative is Rick Roach, in his fourth four-year term in Orange County, Fla. Roach writes:

"It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities....

"It might be argued that I've been out of school too long, that if I'd actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn't that miss the point? A test that can determine a student's future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can't see how that could possibly be true of the test I took."

Roach tells Strauss that thousands of students across the state are denied diplomas every year -- despite high GPAs -- because they fail some portion of the standardized exam.

"There's a concept called reverse design that is critical. We are violating that with our test," Roach says. "Instead of connecting what we learn in school with being successful in the real world, we are doing it in reverse. We are testing first and then kids go into the real world. Whether the information they have learned is important or not becomes secondary. If you really did a study on what math most kids need, I guarantee you could probably dump about 80 percent of math scores and leave high-level math for the kids who want it and will need it.... They are defending a test that has no accountability."

Click through to "The Answer Sheet" to read more of Roach's experience with the exam, and what he tells Strauss are the reasons behind a broken standardized testing system.

To add to what Roach argues is a test with no accountability, Florida's teachers, like many across the country, are evaluated in large part based on student performance on state exams. The evaluation formula used is called a "value-added" analysis, which determines a teacher's effectiveness in improving student performance on standardized tests -- based on past test scores. The forecasted figure is compared to the student's actual scores, and the difference is considered the "value added," or subtracted, by the teachers.

And if the Florida's state exams fail to accurately measure student learning and knowledge, the state's teachers face consequences as well. Top-performing teachers can receive permanent salary increases, whereas those who receive scores on the low end for two consecutive years could be shown the door.

As more of the nation's school districts are designing and implementing more institutional methods of teacher evaluations -- and as some states and districts seek to publicly name teachers tied to the performance of their students -- the need for accurate student assessment is increasingly critical.

But a report released in August by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics found that "proficiency" on standardized exams is defined differently across states.

"There's just no clear relationship between the rigor of the standards and the outcome," Jack Buckley, commissioner of the government organization that produced the report, told reporters in August.

The federal No Child Left Behind law seeks proficiency among all American students by 2014, but some states set significantly higher standards for proficiency in particular subjects. With such a goal that has largely been considered impossible to attain, 11 states have formally submitted requests for waivers from the law's key provisions.

The National Research Council in May published the results of a decade-long study on the effects of standardized testing on student learning. From their findings, the researchers concluded that education policies that emphasize testing haven't necessarily led to greater or improved learning.

But in a rebuttal last month, Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek wrote in Harvard University's journal Education Next, pointed out that the NRC's report actually shows that "accountability has provided significant positive impacts." Hanushek argued that the mere 0.08 standard deviation increase in student learning that the NRC researchers found from standardized testing is actually much more significant than the decimal point seems, contributing to large returns on investment for students.

Test-based accountability by itself won't raise student achievement, Paul Hill, a research professor and director of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education told The Huffington Post last month. He also sat on the NRC committee.