Antecedents of High School Student Success or Failure on Math and English Tests
Discussion of likely results
High school students in the United States are faced with a harsh inevitable eventuality of successfully passing standardized tests when they near graduation. Failing these standardized tests has enormous implications for young learners since this failure means repeating a grade and studies have consistently shown that students that are held back drop out at higher rates. Moreover, current estimates indicate that as many as 75% of American high school students lack competency in the English and mathematics components of these tests, with lower rates generally corresponding to various socioeconomic factors. Despite the numerous criticisms that have been leveled against standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT in measuring student academic achievement and future academic potential, standardized tests are expected to remain the gold standard for these purposes for the foreseeable future. The purpose of the proposed study is to identify the primary reasons for high school student failure on English and mathematics tests using a review of the relevant secondary literature together with the findings the result from the administration and analysis of a questionnaire by a group of American high school teachers.
Research purpose. The centrality of math and English skills to future academic and professional success is well documented, but an alarming number of young Americans today enter college unprepared in varying degrees for the rigors of the mathematics and English curricula (Harrigan, 2012). In fact, the results of recent ACT testing indicate that as many as 75% of all American high school seniors lack the proficiency in English and mathematics they need to succeed in college today (Harrigan, 2012). Irrespective of the many criticisms that have been directed at standardized testing in recent years (and which are discussed further in the literature review below), these tests form the most important basis for measuring academic performance and potential collegiate success across the country today (Rubin, 2009). In this regard, Shepard 2002) reports that, "Critics of testing often argue that the test scores can sometimes provide an inaccurate measure of student progress and that the growing importance of the tests has led teachers to distort the curriculum by 'teaching to the test'" (p. 54). To determine the facts and current state of affairs in the nation's schools, the purpose of the proposed study is to identify the primary reasons for high school student failure or success on English and mathematics components of standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT using the research questions outlined below.
Research questions. The proposed study will be guided by the following research questions together with the source of the data used to develop informed answers:
1. Are high school ACT and SAT math and English test scores affected by gender, cultural, religious, or socioeconomic factors? (literature review);
2. How do high school teachers view the effect of the time spent on standardized testing on instructional planning and non-testing curricular offerings? (literature review and questionnaire);
3. How much class time is typically dedicated to standardized testing preparation in the American high school today?
4. Should standardized testing be continued as a method of measuring high school student academic performance and potential in the future?
The use of standardized tests in American public schools to establish admission requirements for college acceptance is well established and, despite criticisms, is viewed as an equitable approach to determining academic progress (Peng & Le, 2011). Moreover, standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT have become the golden standard by which assessments of knowledge and predictors of college success of American high school students are made today (Peng & Le, 2011). The continuing popularity of these high-stakes standardized testing regimens is based in large part on their purported ability to identify the aptitude of high school students for various learning streams, and then developing individualized curricular offerings that match the students' capacity to learn. For instance, according to Peng and Le, "As knowledge assessments, these types of tests have found considerable success and unlike admission tests, the goals of these tests are to measure a student's academic ability and then properly stream students to courses to ensure academic success and improve institutional outcomes" (2011, p. 43).
Post-secondary institutions also routinely use standardized tests, most especially the ACT and SAT, for placement purposes that tend to focus on English and mathematics which are used to direct incoming freshmen into appropriate learning streams that will facilitate student success at that individual institution (Peng & Le, 2011). Many colleges and universities across the country offer remedial coursework in math and English to help new students catch up with their peers (Stern, 2009). In addition, many colleges and universities use ACT and SAT scores to roughly sort large numbers of applicants into more manageable pools. For example, Rubin (2009) reports that, "Standardized tests are a fact of life for high-school students, all the more so for the ones headed off for four years of further education. While all colleges profess to evaluate applicants based, of course, on their unique attributes, sheer volume requires most schools to rely on standardized tests to create a baseline" (p. 52). In recent years, American high school students have responded by using expensive tutors or tutoring services, taking more tests in an effort to improve scores and developing test-taking strategies which have achieved mixed results (Stern, 2009).
Given the significance of these trends for American high school students and public schools, it is not surprising that standardized tests have become the focus of a growing amount of criticism from educators, students, parents and lawmakers alike in recent years (Rubin, 2009). For example, Rubin notes that, "Attacking the test has long been in vogue. Among the criticisms: it's culturally biased and unfair to students at lower socioeconomic levels, and answering the questions correctly doesn't really correlate to college success" (p. 52). Likewise, Herman and Golan (2001) emphasize that, "While [standardized] testing is thought by many to benefit education in a variety of ways, the validity and value of traditional standardized tests are subjects of increasing debate" (p. 2).
A growing body of evidence indicates that any improvements in testing scores may not be actually related to gains in student learning, suggesting that teachers are in fact "teaching to the test" (Herman & Golan, 2001). Furthermore, many high school teachers maintain that the time and effort spent on preparing students for high-stakes standardized testing regimens detracts from the time available to teach other subjects, including most especially those that contribute to critical-thinking skills (Herman & Golan, 2001). In addition, other significant criticisms of standardized testing maintain that these methods fail to provide enough "bang for the educational buck" to justify their continued use. For instance, Olson (2003) argues that, "The truth is, our assessments often fall short of the real goal of informing instruction. For example, although soon all states will test students annually, only a handful return results that are useful to teachers" (p. 29).
Notwithstanding these numerous criticisms, it is clear that high school education is not a zero-sum proposition and that American high school students must be prepared to perform well on the English and mathematics components of standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT in order to gain admission into their college of choice while developing the critical thinking skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century workplace. Further, a concomitant and growing body of evidence suggests that standardized testing may be doing American high school students more harm than good through these classroom processes, making the need to determine their true efficacy all the more important. For instance, Shepard (2002) notes that the scholarly research to date has involved rigorous field studies and large-scale high school teacher surveys that consistently indicate that the corresponding negative effects on other parts of the curriculum far outweigh any tactical advantage that standardized testing may provide educators seeking to sort the academic wheat from the chaff. In this regard, Shepard emphasizes that, "At the same time that researchers addressed the validity of test score gains, studies have also been done to examine the effect of high-stakes accountability pressure on curriculum and instructional practices" (2002, p. 54).
Moreover, the impact of high school-level standardized testing reaches into the primary classroom as well, further exacerbating the negative effects that standardized test preparation and "teaching to the test" are having on American high school students. As Shepard concludes, "These studies show that efforts to improve test scores have changed what is taught and how it is taught. In elementary schools, for example, teachers eliminate or greatly reduce time spent on social studies and science to spend more time on tested subjects" (2002, p. 55). Taken together, it is apparent that there are some constraints involved in the use of standardized tests in the nation's high schools that warrant further analysis because the stakes truly high.