Guest Column

The Superintendent’s Role in State Assessments

Viewpoint by Christopher T. Cross


The public wants schools and students to be accountable for student learning. State leaders are capitalizing on this sentiment by developing academic standards and assessment.

However, as Michigan has discovered, states must provide local superintendents with the time and implementation framework to develop coherent policies and to build support for the assessments.

Last year, Michigan administered a high school proficiency test whose results were to be stamped on a graduate’s diploma. Given the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other tests, it was not surprising that a majority failed to score at the "proficient" level in reading, writing, math, or science on the Michigan test.

The surprising part came this year when two-thirds of the 500 juniors in one district’s two high schools—most of whom had B averages or better—refused to take the exam. What happened?

Students and parents heard horror stories about an exceptional student who was declared a "novice" at writing after taking the proficiency test last year. Since the test is not linked to graduation and cannot help a student get into college, many students viewed taking the test as a risk. Consequently, many parents took advantage of a clause in Michigan’s proficiency-test legislation that allows them to exempt their children from taking the test.

Michigan may have made two major mistakes. First, it moved too quickly, and therefore failed to "sell" the test. District and school leaders were not given the opportunity to explain the importance of statewide testing to parents and students or to prepare students for the exam. The quick implementation also prevented the state from pilot testing the assessment.

Second, Michigan did not make the test "high stakes" or consider how students would react to the test’s incentives and risks. Under the circumstances, one can easily argue that the students reacted rationally.

What could Michigan have done differently? New York serves as an excellent example for how to build support for a high-stakes assessment. Until recently, New York allowed students to take either the general competency or the Regents’ exams to graduate. Last year, the state required all students to take the more rigorous Regents, which will be phased in over four years. Meanwhile, the exams are being revised to make them more challenging and to align them with the state’s academic standards.

New York took three key steps to ensure that all students pass the Regents’ exams successfully. First, the state mandated that students pass the exams to graduate. Students, therefore, cannot opt out of the exam and must work hard to perform well.

Second, the state is changing its exams for elementary students and is considering changes in high school course requirements. Both of these changes seek to improve the students’ education before they must take the new Regents’ exams.

Finally, by phasing in the exams, the state is allowing districts and schools to adapt their policies and practices to prepare students and to build support for the change. For example, for the next four years schools can drop the minimum grade on the Regents necessary to graduate high school from 65 to 55. In the year 2000, however, all students will be required to score 65 or better.

All states successfully implementing high-stakes assessments recognize that, although Americans support standards and assessments, they do not do so unconditionally. The public must recognize the importance of the standards and assessments and believe them to be fair.

For this to happen, local superintendents must play a central role by working as an intermediary between the state and the schools, parents, and public. Without superintendent input, state assessments are at best a waste of time and at worst front-page public relations disasters. With local superintendents’ active support, state assessments become powerful measurement tools, motivators for students and teachers, and accountability systems that will raise the academic achievement of all students.

Christopher Cross also is president of the Maryland State Board of Education. Scott Joftus, a policy analyst at the Council for Basic Education, contributed to this column.