If you don't know how well something is working, how can you improve it?
That's the argument for standardized testing - it sets benchmarks that can be used to measure progress in schools.
But as New Jersey gets ready to institute a new, more challenging high school graduation test in the 2014-15 school year, it's pretty difficult to figure out what it will mean.
For one thing, the new assessments are still being developed. For another, state education officials are unable to say how many students currently are failing the existing tests.
In an article Sunday, staff writer Diane D'Amico revealed that the state Department of Education has no public data on how many students fail to graduate from high school because they did not pass the state exam.
Graduation rates are public records. But no data is available to show how many seniors fail to graduate solely because they fail one of the state tests.
This seems like a pretty basic - and pretty important - piece of information to have if you are trying to design a better test. And it would be good information for the public to have to gauge the effectiveness of the new test being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The PARCC test will be an online exam that all students entering their sophomore year in September will have to take in their junior year.
Currently, almost all students are required to pass either the High School Proficiency Assessment or the more basic Alternative High School Assessment. While some students with disabilities are exempt from the tests, students who fail must go through a complicated appeals process in order to graduate. Appeals include portfolios of student work to demonstrate their mastery of certain skills.
But officials do not yet know if there will be an appeals process with the PARCC exams.
In 2010, the state reported that about 4,500 high school students were in danger of not graduating because they had failed both portions - language arts and math - of one of the state tests. Through the appeals process, that number was reduced to about 3,000. Schools were able to show that those 1,500 students may not have tested well, but did know the necessary material.
With our increased emphasis on standardized testing and accountability in education - and with the fact that test results will be part of teacher evaluations in the future - it is remarkable that the state does not keep public data on how test results and graduation rates are linked.
Missing such an important benchmark definitely gets a failing grade.