Currently, high school students in more than half the 50 United States, including Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and Massachusetts, are required to pass basic English and math competency tests in order to graduate and receive their degrees. Passage of these tests ensures both employers and colleges that high school graduates have basic skills and help schools and minorities measure progress on achievement.
Employers in industries like manufacturing have good, high-paying jobs waiting for high school graduates, but many complain that these jobs can’t be filled because students don’t actually have the math and English skills that they were supposed to learn in high school. For example, Ben Venue Laboratories in Ohio wanted to hire 100 high school graduates who could pass a ninth-grade math proficiency test for a $13 to $15 per hour job, but a significant portion of their applicants failed. Only 37 out of 3,600 applicants were hired.
Forcing students to pass an exam in order to obtain their high school degree is a way of proving to employers that students actually acquired basic skills in high school. In fact, Achieve Inc. researchers commissioned by the states have advised school systems to make the tests more demanding to better match the needs of employers.
The American College Testing organization has found that the single greatest predictor of a student’s success in college is performance on the ACT exam, in particular the math and English sections. Math and English ability are necessary to understand almost any subject, from hard science to social science to business. For high school students who plan to attend college, it’s valuable to stress the importance of demonstrating math and English competency in order to pass to the next level of schooling.
All high schools attempt to teach students the skills they need to know to survive in the world, but teachers can’t be sure that their lessons have sunk in without measures like competency tests. Though many factors affect a student’s performance on a test, including home life, stress levels, personality and social pressures, very strong teachers have been shown to have a positive impact on student test scores. By observing how well students perform on basic competency tests as they graduate high school, teachers can have a very small indication of how well they are performing in the classroom.
Ethnic minorities in the U.S. have suffered from severe forms of discrimination, including unequal access to quality education. For example, African-Americans who were enslaved were not allowed to have formal education, and during the Jim Crow era they frequently were barred from professional training programs. African-Americans who migrated to Chicago after World War II were forced to go to school in shifts – morning, noon and night – rather than be integrated into white schools. As a result, some minorities demonstrate poor academic achievement compared to their white peers. However, test scores have shown that African-American test scores and the test scores of other groups have improved over time as the government has taken steps to fight inequality. Basic English and math competency tests at the end of high school give educators and minority groups a measure of how they are progressing in the quest to achieve equality.
- Achieve, Inc.: Do Graduation Tests Measure Up?
- The New York Times: Factory Jobs Return, but Employers Find Skills Shortage
- The Christian Science Monitor: ACT scores: Can they predict your success?
- Rand Education: Teachers Matter: Understanding Teachers' Impact on Student Achievement
- USA Today: Minorities' learning gap shrinks, report says
Laura Holland Fletcher has graduate level training in ESL, linguistics and the teaching of writing. She taught ESL and college writing for more than 10 years in both the US and Asia. She also writes for local and national magazines that cover legal, educational and social justice issues.