DURING THE 19705, NEARLY EVERY STATE IN the nation began instituting tests of basic skills for high-school students as the leading edge of the so-called "first wave" of education reforms, These reforms were a response to the widespread impression that test scores and the quality of public schooling were in decline. According to critics, the high-school diploma, once a true accomplishment, had been debased in an era of social promotion and low standards--to the point where it held no real meaning for postsecondary institutions or potential employers.
The pace of reform was greatly accelerated with the release in 1983 of the blue-ribbon report A Nation at Risk. A chief cause of the nation's educational decline, the report ventured, was the "cafeteria-style curriculum" that allowed students to pursue a diffuse and unchallenging course of study. The report recommended that states require students to take a minimum number of courses in core academic subjects in order to graduate from high school. As a result, by 1992 nearly every state had increased its graduation requirements in the core academic areas. However, only three states, Florida, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, had met the standard recommended by the Risk report: four years of English and at least three years each of social studies, science, and math.
Such reforms, with their focus on testing and higher academic standards, are the precursors of today's controversial accountability movement. Yet there has been surprisingly little study of their consequences. For instance, did the requirement that all students pass a minimum-competency test in order to graduate from high school encourage more students (in particular, minorities) to drop out of high school, as many critics feared? Did such exams, as supporters hoped, make the high-school diploma more valuable, thereby improving the job prospects of graduates?
These questions continue to be relevant as the states ramp up their testing programs and impose ever-harsher sanctions on failing schools and low-performing students. Judging from their continuing prevalence in policy debates, such questions also remain mostly unanswered.
Minimum-competency exams were by far the more controversial of the two major first-wave education reforms. In the end, few critics object to tougher course requirements. The controversy arises when states attempt to test whether students have met a certain standard--and especially when they attach consequences to the results of such exams. In the beginning, most minimum-competency exams were intended simply to identify low-performing students and to direct them toward sources of remediation. However, several states also mandated that students pass the minimum-competency exam in order to graduate with a standard high-school diploma. By 1992, graduating high-school seniors in 15 states were required to pass a basic-skills test.
Typically, students would first sit for these exams in the 9th or 10th grade and enjoy multiple opportunities for retests. The conventional wisdom has been that these tests were "legislated as a lion but implemented as a lamb." To wit, the exams were usually set at only the 8th- or 9th-grade level. The standards were sometimes set even lower in the face of politically unacceptable failure rates. As a consequence, the ultimate pass rates among high-school seniors were extremely high. The still-open question is whether these pass rates were artificially high, given that some students may have chosen simply to drop out if they thought they had little chance of passing the test.
Placing students at increased risk of dropping out is one of the major objections that critics lodge against any kind of testing regime that imposes harsh penalties on students, The intent of these reforms is both to raise academic standards and to give students the incentives to meet them. But critics say that standards-based reforms may simply exacerbate existing inequalities if sanctions are applied to low-performing students without giving them the resources and help they need to succeed. …