Tests that count

When California began evaluating schools largely according to results on annual standardized tests, policymakers hoped that the new system would hold teachers and administrators accountable. What they forgot about was accountability for students.

It matters because in middle and high schools, students often don’t care about schoolwork that doesn’t contribute one way or another to their grades. Some might try hard on the tests in order to make their school look good, but others couldn’t care less, choosing answers at random or picking one multiple-choice column for all their answers. That’s unfair to the school and its faculty, producing results that don’t accurately reflect what students have learned.

The Los Angeles Unified School District announced last week that it would begin to give students at selected high schools a boost in their grades if they perform well on the state’s yearly standards tests. We think it’s long past the time when the tests should count toward students’ grades. But this also needs to be carried out with a sense of proportion; what’s most important in measuring a student’s progress is the learning that takes place over 10 months, not what bubbles get filled in with a No. 2 pencil in a few hours.

Under the plan, the high schools involved would give a huge advantage to students who improve their ranking on the tests, raising their grades by one whole letter -- from a B to an A, or a C-minus to a B-minus. That’s too much. And if there are rewards for doing well, there also should be consequences for scoring poorly. Critics are right when they characterize this as more of a bribe than a natural linkage of tests with grades.


The district also plans to give students in Advanced Placement courses an automatic A if they pass the AP exam, a move that has its own troubling elements. A passing score can be as low as a mediocre 3 out of 5, too low for many colleges to give students credit for the course. This grade bump makes no distinction between an outstanding student who has mastered the material enough to earn a perfect 5 and one who has just gotten by and scores a 3. And the tactic might backfire, leading college admissions committees to discount the grades of students in L.A. Unified’s AP courses.

It makes sense for end-of-course exams to be included in students’ grades, especially when those exams are aligned with the course curriculum, as the AP tests are. The main problem with the state standards tests is that they simply aren’t very good. They tend to be broad and shallow in the material they cover, and they repeat a large number of questions from year to year. They are filled with multiple-choice questions, and rarely with questions that entail critical thinking or writing skills. Test results should be meaningful for everyone involved, including students.