Sunday, July 30, 2006

Exit Exam Debate Heats Up, Again--ETS Contract in the Background


On July 25, the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco heard arguments about the fairness of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in the continuing case of Valenzuela v. O'Connell. The court will have 90 days to decide whether a judge in Alameda was correct in blocking the exam. The case and its ensuing debates seem to hinge on two central questions: Does the CAHSEE punish students not equitably prepared by educational resources across the state, or does the test reward students by creating a common benchmark for graduation?

While many of us are certainly rooting for the underdogs here, it's important to note that the case does not challenge the test instrument, the assessment process, or the core principle of "exit exams" per se, but instead argues that bad teachers and poor materials are to blame for students not passing the exam. Even a plaintiffs' victory in this case could result in an ironic backlash of increased standardization for classrooms. It's an odd case of Be careful what we wish for.

The results of Valenzuela v. O'Connell will determine whether or not students denied diplomas in June for failing the exit exam will be issued diplomas retroactively. According to estimates, nearly 40 thousand students in California failed the CAHSEE.

However, behind the scenes is a larger picture, with ETS's multi-million dollar contract to develop, administer, and score the test hanging somewhat in the balance. Making the test "optional" or rendering its results "unconstitutional" would not bode well for the assessment giant. ETS has already taken recent hits in the press for "misplacing" score sheets for the CAHSEE in Long Beach, as well as for scoring errors nationally publicized on the the high-stakes SAT exam.

Additionally, ETS last spring spent $11.1 million to settle a class action suit brought on behalf of 4,100 teachers who "failed" the PRAXIS teacher certification exam when they had actually passed it (a total of 27 thousand teacher candidates received lower scores than they should have and may also be eligible for damages).

No wonder ETS has learned to diversify its services, building up the minute-by-minute formative assessment component of its K-12 instructional marketing, offering a more intimate classroom connection--increased resources for "how to prepare for tests we give you."

Click here to read the Sacramento Bee's coverage of appeal preparations last week, including sample questions from the CAHSEE with answers.

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