How Can We Encourage Students To Try Their Best On Test Day?

There is one basic complaint that educators voice about the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) that is given during the junior year and used to determine whether a given high school makes Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP): What incentive do all students have to perform well on the tests?  I understand and agree with this concern.  I remember proctoring PSAE exams and seeing some students filling in the dots to make designs or words because they had concluded, based on their future plans, the test was of little or no consequence to them.  After all, if your post-graduation goal is to go to work for your family business or go to L.A. and become movie star, what can anyone say that will make you put your best effort forward during two days of fairly tedious testing?  As much as we may preach that your plans may change and a good score on your PSAE will leave other options open, it is sometimes not possible to convince sixteen year-old students that their futures may not be quite what they envision.

Meanwhile, the high school is left to deal with the AYP consequences of what a student does—or doesn’t do—on the PSAE exam.  Even for those students who do put in some effort, many may see the whole process as nothing more than “administrivia” that will have little impact on their futures.

One solution might be to do what was done when I was in high school in New York State—use the mandated testing to determine what level of high school diploma you are granted.  In our case, the tests were the Regents Examinations administered by New York, and the cumulative scores established whether we received a regular high school diploma or a “Regents” diploma, which was read by post-secondary schools and employers as proof that we had achieved a more significant mastery of the high school curriculum than our peers.  Indeed, given the acknowledged rigor of the exams at that time, the gold Regents seal on your diploma was a useful and well-recognized distinction of excellence that opened doors to higher education and employment for many who might otherwise have had no incentive to put any effort into the examinations.

Before anyone shouts “elitism” or worse, please consider that we already recognize the value of college and professional degrees from more academically demanding institutions, and we likewise make all sorts of distinctions about the academic and professional standing of individuals based on designations regarding subject mastery—how else to explain all the doctoral degree programs at our universities?  Moreover, using the PSAE scores in this manner might ease the relentless grade inflation in high school by making the academic distinction wholly dependent on a standardized test taken by all students, thereby helping to restore teacher grading back to its original purpose—providing feedback to students and parents regarding mastery of the subject material.

Also, to return to the matter of our students simply not putting out the effort on test day, there will now be an immediate and recognizable incentive to do more than fill in the bubble sheet, which will also help us more accurately determine whether our local high schools are doing a good job at their core function of preparing students for the demands of post-secondary education and gainful employment.

Also, it should be pointed out that, in my case, the Regents’ seal on my diploma immediately conferred eligibility for financial aid based on academic achievement, money that was much welcomed by this child of a Polish immigrant truck driver when it came time to pay my initial tuition bill at Yale.  If local scholarship funds regularly set aside grants based on performance on the PSAE exam, we could provide further incentive for our students to put in their best efforts on test day—and pay attention every class day leading up to the test to ensure that that they are prepared to succeed.

Of course, if you really wanted to go the simple and direct route on this question, we could explore the idea of using the PSAE test as a component of a comprehensive high school exit examination.  Roughly half the states in the country, including California starting in 2006, now make use of standardized testing to check student competencies prior to conferring a diploma.  The idea horrifies some, but it would certainly end any further discussion of the test being meaningless to at least some of our high school students—not to mention helping us to accurately assess whether our secondary schools are generating minimally literate graduates.

Will doing all of this make any difference when it comes to our most disaffected and disconnected students?  No, it will not, and this is another challenge for our public schools to address.  However, attaching immediate and recognizable consequences to scores on the PSAE it may nudge more than a few along on both test day and the many days leading up to the test, and that would be a very good outcome for our area high schools that, year by year, are experiencing a drop in the percentage of their students meeting the benchmark for AYP success, in some cases to less than half of the students taking the PSAE.

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