Although high standards hold great promise for improving teaching and learning for low-achieving students, the improper use of graduation and promotion tests can hurt the very students who need help the most.
The central and oft-stated goal of the standards and accountability movement is to help all students achieve high levels of knowledge and skill. Certainly no one needs high-quality curriculum and teaching more than low-achieving students, who have long been the victims of low expectations, weak instruction, and inadequately funded schools. Data from large-scale assessments, if used properly with other relevant information, can help improve curriculum and pedagogy, hold schools accountable for improved achievement, and identify and address students' learning needs. And pass rates on state graduation tests appear to be rising, at least before such factors as dropout rates and increased retention in grade are taken into account.
Even so, in more and more states and school districts, testing programs and education practices that are supposed to help low-achieving students are instead putting those students at substantially increased risk of leaving school without the standard high school diplomas that open the doors to much that is good in life. In our society, not having a diploma is associated with lower pay, diminished opportunities for employment and further education, higher risk of criminal incarceration, and greater likelihood of dysfunction in family life (National Research Council [NRC], 1999). Moreover, “alternative” diplomas are no match for the real thing; evidence suggests that holders of the General Equivalency Diploma resemble high school dropouts in terms of future educational and employment opportunities (NRC, 2001).